|If SOPA passes, you'll be seeing a whole lot of this.|
So here's what you need to know.
What is SOPA?
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a House bill proposed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R - Texas) and supported by a lot of people -- mainly big corporations who have something to protect. It is also criticized by a lot of people, mainly the denizens of the Internet, who believe that the bill is too harsh, too restrictive, and too vague to be a viable solution to the "problem" of Internet piracy.
[Read Alexander Howard's article at The Huffington Post: What You Need to Know About the Stop Online Piracy Act in 2012]
SOPA is an attempt to help the U.S. government fight copyright fraud (both online and offline, but the bill specifically deals with the online presence of this fraud) outside of the United States. At the moment, the government has little power when it comes to copyright fraud happening outside of its jurisdiction, i.e., outside of the United States.
So what SOPA proposes to do is give them the power not to shut down Websites perpetrating copyright fraud (because they will never have that power) but to censor them. SOPA would allow the government to order censorship of a Website that is known for peddling illegal content, either by ordering the Internet Service Provider (such as Comcast) to block the Website, or by forcing search engines (such as Google and Microsoft Bing) and payment processing companies (such as PayPal) to cut off access.
Who Supports SOPA?
Gizmodo has a list of the companies that support SOPA, and this list includes such household names as Disney, ESPN, Estee Lauder, Marvel Entertainment, L'Oreal, Sony, Scholastic, Tiffany & Co., ABC, CBS, and Comcast. And of course the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) also support SOPA, since it's right up their alley.
Who Doesn't Support SOPA?
There are a few major anti-SOPA congresspeople, including Representative Zoe Lofgren (D - California), who represents a major part of Silicon Valley (she is actually my representative). Also, Representative Darrell Issa (R - California). Many large corporations who are more Internet-savvy also do not support SOPA -- TechCrunch has a list of 40 corporations who have come out publicly against SOPA. These include Facebook, Google, Mozilla, Wikipedia, basically the entire Internet. The Business Software Alliance initially supported SOPA, but withdrew support after taking another look at the proposed bill.
Why Does Anyone Support SOPA?
If you've read enough about SOPA, you may be wondering why in the world anyone even supports it. Well, if you take another look at the list of companies that have publicly given the proposed bill support, you'll notice that they're not all MPAA- and RIAA-types -- in fact, many of them have little or nothing to do with tech. For example, why does Tiffany & Co., or Estee Lauder, or MasterCard even care about a bill about the Internet and piracy?
Because it's not just about piracy -- it's about copyright fraud. All of these companies (large as they are) are hurt by copyright theft. For example, if someone purchases a fake Tiffany & Co. necklace from a foreign website, Tiffany & Co. is hurt -- not just because that person might have otherwise purchased a legitimate Tiffany necklace (they might not have -- it's been shown that pirating lots of songs doesn't necessarily mean you'd purchase them at full price, after all), but also because Tiffany can't control its brand quality. If that necklace tarnishes, then that person (who may still think it's real) will no longer purchase anything from Tiffany, real or not.
Also, if that person discovers that it's not real, they may file a fraud claim with their credit card company. And well, then MasterCard might end up eating that cost. And on, and on.
So, while this should not be read as advocacy for SOPA (because it certainly is not), it is important to realize that the supporters of SOPA aren't just supporting the bill to spite people who download illegal tunes. Okay, well maybe the RIAA is.
[Read my article at PCWorld: The Case for SOPA]
Why Doesn't Anyone Support SOPA?
If you haven't read all that much about SOPA, you may be wondering why everyone is so angry about it in the first place. After all, it only applies to foreign websites, and it merely gives the government the power to censor certain websites -- not get rid of them completely.
Perhaps one of the biggest problems with SOPA is the specific wording in the bill. The bill wants to ban Websites that infringe on others' copyright -- fair enough. However, because of the way that copyright is set up, this includes multiple websites that have nothing to do with peddling fake TIffany necklaces across the ocean. For example: YouTube. Wikipedia. WikiLeaks, which routinely posts copyrighted documents. Social networks. Blogs. eBay. In other words, pretty much everything that makes up the Internet. As Stephen Colbert pointed out in his clip (in which my article was cited!), SOPA would make felons out of kids dancing to a popular song in a YouTube video.
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Stop Online Piracy Act|
[Read Declan McCullagh's article on CNET: How SOPA Would Affect You: FAQ]
SOPA also makes it a crime to stream copyrighted works without permission -- and allows for a maximum punishment of five years in prison for a first offense of streaming 10 songs or movies within six months. Yes, five years in prison.
[Read my PCWorld article: Controversial Anti-Piracy Bill (SOPA) Nears House Approval: Why You Should Care]
Basically, the bill goes too far. As Rep. Zoe Lofgren points out, we don't block telephone lines just because people can do illegal business on them. We also don't block international flights just because people can hijack them, we don't block shipments just because sometimes they carry drugs, etc. What's worse is that blocking these websites doesn't even begin to solve or address the issue of actual copyright theft. After all, it's not like blocking access to these Websites from the United States is going to stop them from existing. Just because we close our eyes and ears and Internet lines doesn't mean they'll go away.
So what SOPA really does is give the U.S. government the power to censor the Internet on a whim, for no reason.
One Important Thing to Note
While most of the Internet is against SOPA, that does not mean that most of the Internet supports piracy. In fact, most of the people who are against SOPA are avidly against piracy -- they simply realize that SOPA is much too broad and all-consuming to do much good against piracy, and that it's ripe for abuse by the government. However, this is a note to both the anti-SOPA laypeople who think they're arguing for "freedom" as in "free stuff" and to the pro-SOPA RIAA and co., who automatically assume that not cracking down with a vengeance on Internet pirates = rampant support for piracy. Both of you are wrong.
What Can I Do?
SOPA will be re-addressed when the House reconvenes after the winter break. It's imperative that people who use and understand the Internet speak up. Here are some things you can do:
The Whitehouse Official "We The People" Page: Veto SOPA
Save The Internet! (Avaaz)
Don't Censor the Net (Senator Rand Paul's Petition)
Stop American Censorship (Call Your Congressperson)
Keep the Web OPEN
Fight the Blacklist: A Toolkit for Anti-SOPA Activism (EFF)