You may have noticed some of the Internet’s most influential sites like WordPress and WikiPedia “going dark” recently to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and emphasise the effect that SOPA, if passed, could have on the Web and daily life. SOPA is a controversial measure introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chair and Texas Republican Lamar Smith. The act’s intent is to help fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods by preventing advertising networks and payment facilities from conducting business with infringing websites, preventing search engines from linking to the sites, and (most concerningly), requiring ISPs to block people from even having access to the site. The measure is obviously designed for the primary benefit of movie studios and record labels.
The vote on SOPA’s senate counterpart (PIPA) is this Wednesday. SOPA discussions will resume in February.
Theft of Internet intellectual property is a serious problem, but unfettered censorship and curbing technological progress is not the answer. Rather than securing a court order, property owners would simply need to present a notice of their “good faith belief” that the target site has infringed on their content. The recipient of the notice would have 5 days to obstruct access to the material or challenge the claim in court. Shockingly, though, content providers like YouTube and payment gateways like PayPal can shut block a site’s resources without even receiving a letter. Google could potentially block access to every viral video site with a “good faith belief” that they’re infringing on copyrights and leaving YouTube with a virtual video monopoly.
SOPA would obstruct advertising on infringing sites and result in a string of chaotic breaks in agreements and relationships among businesses across the Internet, not to mention the simplest effects like broken links that, left uncorrectd, could harm 3rd party sites in both usability and search engine rankings.
SOPA also contains an anti-circumvention clause, which prohibits discussion of alternatives to SOPA-blocked sites. Your tweet or Facebook post about a rights-protected movie torrent could be removed, and Facebook and Twitter could face the same blockades for ignoring the posts. Take a moment to imagine the resources required on the part of so many different parties…
How can Congress accomplish its goal with minimal side effects? It could start with a greater attention to enforcement of existing laws such as the Digital Millenium Enforcement Act and by developing sensible alternative legislation that protects the freedom of information.
In the meantime, do what you can to help derail SOPA. Email your local US representative and your state senators. Participate in the discussions online. Let your opinion be known. People are listening.