What is SOPA Bill 2012? 7 Things to Know About Controversial Legislation

on December 25 2011 12:19 PM
SOPA is Dead
Many critics worry that the ACTA treaty would limit internet freedom and create an international censorship system. Reuters

SOPA legislation is currently under debate in Congress for 2012, the sister bill to the halted Protect IP Act that passed the Senate in 2010. But what is the Stop Online Piracy Act, and why does this bill have so many on the Internet up in arms?

At its most basic level, SOPA is a bill reacting to the Internet itself, with all its thorny copyright issues and backdoors. It's also in violation of many parts of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a monumental piece of legislation that has shaped the course of the Internet and the institution of online safe spaces since 1998.

SOPA's proponents argue the bill will protect U.S. citizens and corporations from foreign rogue sites, while opponents argue it amounts to nothing less than wholesale censorship with little regulation.

But what does SOPA actually say, and how will it affect Internet users abroad and in the U.S.? Below, here are seven things to know about the controversial SOPA legislation, from how supporters argue it would create jobs to why some web sites are arguing it could create online monopolies and cause the U.S. to wind up a censorship state.

1. What is SOPA?

SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act, introduced last month by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

SOPA is something of a companion bill to the Senate's Protect IP Act that passed the Senate earlier this year before Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) placed a hold on it. Protect IP aimed to target Web companies hosting unauthorized content from movies, songs or software. It also dealt with the trade of counterfeit goods over the Internet.

Sen. Wyden expressed great concern over the Protect IP Act, saying censorship had the potential to muzzle speech and stifle innovation and economic growth.

SOPA however, goes much further than the first bill, as detailed in the points below. It grants the government further powers to go after web sites that are using copyrighted content, makes many more people on the Internet susceptible to legal action, and would have the power to shut down entire domains for one violation, even if that violation was indirect or essentially unknowing.

2. Internet Piracy is Rampant in U.S. and Abroad

On the business-side, online piracy is a huge problem for the U.S., and will continue to be so in 2012. The Chamber of Commerce estimates that U.S. companies lose roughly $135 billion a year to counterfeiting and piracy.

Fundamentally, this is about jobs, Michael O'Leary, a witness for the Motion Picture Association of America told Congress this fall.

Nor are online piracy's effects limited to the area they target, or to the businesses they steal from. Piracy's ripple effect goes beyond studios and companies, and even the artists within them: it can also affect any of the thousands of businesses that work within the entertainment and retail industries.

In the future, SOPA would allow for much bigger returns on these companies' investments, and could stop the industry from shrinking, cutting jobs and whole sectors.

3. But It's Not Just About Internet Piracy

SOPA's proponents argue that online infringement has become an epidemic. In order to combat such flagrant abuses of copyright legislation, extreme measures must be taken.

Those in favor of the bill argue that only egregious violators will be targeted. As one blogger for the MPAA wrote: SOPA will target rogue sites that knowingly and deliberately engage in the illegal distribution of stolen content, including movies and television shows, for profit. Such uses of the bill would go after web sites like Megavideo and Sidereel.com.

SOPA legislation however, just like sister-bill Protect IP, is written in very broad, vague terms, meaning even sites that use song clips, or create GIFs using scenes from copyrighted movies, could potentially be forced to remove the content or be shut down entirely.

In order to qualify as a violation of SOPA, this is all the site needs to be directed toward the U.S. and either engage in, enable, or facilitate infringement or be taking steps avoid confirming a high probability of copyright infringement.

Such sweeping legislation affects almost every share-content site on the Internet today, especially in Tumblr accounts and sites like reddit.com.

4. SOPA Has Power to Make Sites (and Information) Disappear

Opponents of the Stop Online Piracy Act have pointed out many ways in which the censorship hidden in the proposed legislation is barely any different from China's censorship of Google, a phenomenon many Americans are fond of decrying on a regular basis.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has been instrumental in compiling a series of articles on the overarching effect of the SOPA and Protect IP Acts, and have done a breakdown of the terminology within the controversial bill.

Looking into the language hiding under crusades against foreign sites streaming movies, SOPA would require service providers to disappear web sites violating copyright content. The message this sends? It's okay endanger Internet security, and censor entire sites, as long as it's in the name of IP enforcement.

Currently, the Digital Millennium Copyrigth Act (DMCA) grants immunity to Web sites for content posted on their site by users (which is why all of Youtube isn't taken down every time someone posts the entirety of The Princess Bride online). SOPA blurs the distinction between the site's host and those who post there, eliminating many Internet safe harbors for shared content. Sites could be punished simply for not doing enough (and the bill does not yet specify just what enough would be) to police their site, even if the owner didn't post anything illegal themselves.

And if SOPA is allowed to blacklist entire domains in the manner, the EFF points out, it will also mean turning off thousands of underlying web sites associated with the offender, even if they've violated no laws. Type in the URL of the targeted site, and the web site, as well as all its direct and indirect associates, would not appear, even though it still existed.

It also means that what happened to Wikileaks via voluntary censorship could now occur in a systematized and streamlined way, as long as someone, somewhere, believes their IP rights are being violated.

5. SOPA Could Create Online Monopolies

Computer World, meanwhile, has been focusing on the Act's effect on advertising networks and payment sites, in 2012 and beyond.

In its current form, the bill gives content owners the right to tell networks and services like Mastercard and PayPal to stop providing services to the allegedly offending web site.

Without needing to consult Congress' DMCA safe harbor laws or even a judge's verdict that the site is guilty, the payment processor or ad service would have five days to cut off all financial support, with these sires granted full immunity for any actions taken at the request of content users. The entire site would then be financially choked off, with the owners given only five days to realize the situation and file a counter-notice.

How could this amount to a monopoly? Because it gives companies like PayPal, Visa, MasterCard and even parts of Wikipedia enormous incentive to comply with Hollywood, the MPAA and big record companies' requests.

As the history of the DMCA has already shown, content owners often send out complaints that turn out to be bogus, merely to ensure that all content, even in the form of movie stills and 30 second song clips, is under their purview.

Search engines like Google and Yahoo could also fit under this bill, meaning any violation of privacy laws, even in one post on one page of the site, could remove it from being searched online.

The solutions [outlined in SOPA] are draconian, Google Executive Eric Schmidt told The Christian Science Monitor. There's a bill that would require [Internet service providers] to remove URLs from the Web, which is also known as censorship last time I checked.

6. SOPA is About Future, Not Present

SOPA's biggest critics and most die-hard supporters have found one thing on which they can agree whole-heartedly agree on one thing: this bill, and its sister Protect IP, are likely to have a huge effect on the future of the Internet if they pass, affecting everything from the security of the DMCA to the shape of the shape of the sites and systems created and going viral every day.

To give some perspective: if SOPA had been introduced in 1991, not 2011, Youtube would not exist, at least in nothing remotely like the form it has taken. Sites like Hulu, with copyright-allowed streaming and frequent ad breaks, would dominate now-hunted sites like Megavideo and Sidereel.com.

Facebook would be even more embroiled in ad companies and Big Media than it even is today. Google would block more than two-thirds of all Tumblr accounts, if the blogging host even existed.

7. The Internet is Fighting Back

Tumblr took a dramatic stand against SOPA back when Congress began debating it in November, commemorating American Censorship Day on Nov. 16 by treating users to parts of their feed being black-barred, with the word Censored written across it in all-caps.

EFF's web site and other online communities have pulled similar stunts to demonstrate the possible effect of the legislation. Nor is the heavy regulation the bill promises sitting well with almost any of the Internet's best and brightest, according to Business Insider.

AOL, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Zynga and Facebook have all signed a letter to Congress opposing the bill and the the Protect IP Act, citing the paramount importance of the DMCA and offering to cooperate in other ways of combating foreign rogue sites.

Since their enactment in 1998, the DMCA’s safe harbor provisions for online service providers have been a cornerstone of the U.S. Internet and technology industry’s growth and success, the letter read.

In combating online piracy, we should not jeopardize a foundational structure that has worked for content owners and Internet companies alike and provides certainty to innovators with new ideas for how people create, find, discuss and share information lawfully online.”

Since the letter's publication, the European Parliament has adopted a resolution against the bill, stressing the need to protect the integrity of the global Internet and freedom of communication, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi tweeted that the U.S. [needs] to find a better solution.

Another letter by GOP presidential hopeful Ron Paul and others in ongres predicted that SOPA would invite an explosion of innovation-killing lawsuits and litigation, and a protest song has even been created.

Those who support SOPA, meanwhile, are getting a big backlash. Hosting and domain registrar company Go Daddy lost more than 37,000 domains in the past two days after flip-flopping about their stance on the Stop Onlline Piracy Act. Since they first announced their support for the bill, the company has lost 72,354 domains in this week alone, and is expected to lose more in January 2012.

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