Today, as you should know by now, is SOPA Blackout Day, which is a concerted effort by various companies, groups, and individuals to protest the proposed legislation which could endanger the Internet as we know it. There has been an incredible amount of coverage on two proposed bills - SOPA and PIPA - which delves into the potential dangers of the bills, and many articles even get to the core of the argument which is that we need to have a free and open Internet. The trouble with most of the coverage that we've seen is that it doesn't get deep enough into the absurdity of why these proposals exist in the first place.
For the basics, SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) are laws being put forth for review in the US House of Representatives and Senate respectively. Regardless of the senators and congressmen who actually put the bills forward, the bills were both created by lobbyists working for large corporations. The bills can target media piracy, intellectual property, and counterfeit goods and medications, though for our purposes, we'll focus on the media side because those are the biggest issues regarding not only what we do, but what we love about the Internet.
There have been a variety of laws and proposals targeting piracy in the past, but this is the first to try to push beyond the US borders and fight copyright infringement on foreign websites. Originally, both bills had provisions which would allow the US Department of Justice (DoJ) to file for court orders which would require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block the domain names of infringing sites. This idea was shot down as a security concern and has been removed from both bills. Surprisingly, while this provision was considered a security threat, no one seemed to care that although the domain name would be blocked, the underlying IP address would not be, and websites could easily just change domain names.
The other provision provided in each bill to fight copyright infringement is far more serious, and would allow rights holders to seek a court order to cut off funds and kill links to an allegedly infringing site by stopping payment providers, advertisers, and search engines from doing business with the site in question. The accused site would have 5 days to appeal the court order.
While the two bills are similar in the actions taken once the court order has been filed, the two are very different in the level of requirement necessary for the court order to be filed. PIPA is the more stringent of the two, because it will only allow for a court filing if the accused site has "no significant use other than" copyright infringement. SOPA has more lax rules, which make it the far more dangerous bill, because it defines an "infringing site" as any site that is "committing or facilitating" copyright infringement.
Before we get into the inherent problems and dangers in the proposed bills, we want to take a second to consider the entities involved in creating and supporting the bills. As we mentioned, part of the bill is designed to fight counterfeit goods, so when you check a list of companies which support SOPA and PIPA, many are apparel manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies. Perhaps if the fight against counterfeit goods were separate from claims of intellectual property, copyright infringement or piracy, that legislation could pass, because physical goods, especially medications, are inherently different from digital, but unfortunately the proposals are all together. As we also mentioned, the congressional representatives supporting the bill are also somewhat irrelevant because supporting or denouncing the bills is ultimately a matter of lobbyist pressure, and political opportunism as we've already seen with a number of representatives dropping support for the bill today. However, the main names to keep in mind are Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) who authored SOPA and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) who authored PIPA.
As always in US government, the lobbyist groups behind bills are far more important and powerful than the actual representatives in government. The media companies supporting the bills include: CBS, Comcast, Dolby Labs, Electronic Arts, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), National Association of Broadcasters, NBC Universal, Nintendo, News Corp, Sony Electronics, Sony Music, Sony Pictures, Disney, Universal Music Group, Viacom, and of course the RIAA.
That's a powerhouse list of supporters with a lot of money behind each. Of course, they are all "old media" companies with a vested interest in limiting the potential of the Internet. These companies need to limit the Internet, because each has been built on a technological bottleneck that it has exploited for incredible profit. For a long time, newspapers ruled the world of news because the machines required to make the media were expensive, the same went for video and music production. There was a time when you had to subscribe to an expensive TV package or else you wouldn't be able to get your favorite content. There was a time that theaters were a far better experience for watching movies than at home. There was a time when you could only get music in record stores. All of these companies want to keep us in those times as long as possible, mostly because these companies want to hold onto the power positions they have in the old systems, and avoid the more diversified and distributed structures of the Internet.
The RIAA has fervently fought against so-called "piracy" without regard to the growing amount of evidence that "piracy" is really nothing more than effective marketing, which will ultimately increase sales by increasing the reach of music. The RIAA has completely ignored how incredibly lucrative the Internet can be for music with its speed of distribution, and powerful tools for discovery and serendipity. Instead, the RIAA wants to kill any ways to access music except for the predefined channels. Many of the other companies have fought the same way against so-called video "piracy", while ignoring similar trends which were major players in the resurrection of cult favorites like Futurama and Family Guy. Let's not forget that Viacom, a company supporting SOPA, at one point sued Google for infringing videos on YouTube, while simultaneously having employees set up multiple accounts to upload that same content to YouTube. Some companies, like News Corp even go so far as to assume that information itself can be owned and blocked off, and want to close down anyone that even links to their news stories because of proprietary rights, again ignoring the value in links and ease of access. If these companies had their way, services like Google News, Spotify, Pandora, Netflix, and Hulu wouldn't exist because they supposedly cannibalize sales for the news, music and cable companies. And, if SOPA and PIPA pass those companies would have the tools to go after more than just the big guys, but the small start-ups and blogs that make the Internet such a rich ecosystem.
The number one argument against the bills seems to be that neither does enough to prevent abuse of the law by preventing false accusations. There are no provisions in the bills to hold anyone accountable for a false report. Payment providers and ad companies would be given immunity for cutting off funding due to a false report. Companies filing a false report will incur attorney's fees and such, but even that may not really stop anything because the legislation actually goes beyond that to hold accused sites accountable for everything. There is a provision which essentially states that accused sites are allowed to appeal, but if it is shown to be an "infringing site" (which is highly likely under the loose requirements), that site will become responsible for all of the attorney's fees of whoever accused you. So, this means that someone can accuse you, and ultimately have you pay all of their attorney's fees if you try to fight back. Worse, if you don't fight back, the lawsuit stemming from the accusation could end up with the accuser gaining ownership of your domain.
Beyond all of these issues, SOPA expands the bounds of what is considered copyright infringement to a troubling degree. If you have anything on your site which could be considered as copyright infringement (an unsourced image, video clip, or even just a silly video of you and a friend re-enacting a scene from Shaun of the Dead or singing a song,) and the value of that infringement is calculated to be more than $2500, you are at risk. This means if you sing a song which could be purchased for $1, 2500 hits will make you culpable. And if a copyright holder were to bring a lawsuit against you, it is highly likely they would add on the "willful infringement for commercial gain", which would ultimately lead to a felony arrest.
Additionally, the supporters of SOPA and PIPA claim that the bills will not effect American websites including those which have joined the protest against the legislation like Google, reddit, Wired, Wikipedia, etc. The trouble here is two-fold. First, the language in the legislation does not limit actions to non-US websites, but is targeted at "An Internet site dedicated to the theft of U.S. property", which could reasonably include YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, the Android Market, Windows Phone Marketplace, iTunes App Store, as well as essentially any website with a comment section. Any website that has any unsourced material would be subject to being cut off from funding and search. Actually the law goes further than that, and would make any website culpable if it doesn't actively screen all content for possible infringement. YouTube has already proven this sort of screening can be physically impossible for sites generating large amounts of content, and even the measures in existence on YouTube are poorly implemented because of the same issue as SOPA with preventing abuse as we mentioned with the MegaUpload case.
If you think that sounds bad, the second trouble is even worse. Let's assume for a minute that we can trust that these bills will not have an effect on American websites, these bills still have a global impact, which is the ultimate slippery slope. Right now, each country has specific laws concerning the Internet, but laws do not cross national borders. Once any country begins to enforce its own laws regarding the Internet on other countries, where does it stop? If a site in China is cut off because of SOPA or PIPA, what's to stop Chinese law from censoring any American websites referring to Tienanmen Square? What's to stop a country with very strict decency laws from shutting down popular sites like Maxim or Bleacher Report because of all of the images of scantily clad women?
The point is, the Internet is what it is because it has been free to evolve. The content that you know and love exists because of this freedom, and the possibilities afforded by the Internet. The Internet is bigger than America, bigger than corporate lobbyists, bigger than media as we once knew it. The Internet is a new medium that has proven time and again that there is incredible value in sharing, openness, connections, and easy distribution. The Internet is a place where small voices can be heard because the barriers to entry have been lowered, and those small voices have been allowed to congregate and grow into the sources that you depend on every day. The Internet is the reason why smartphones are smart, and why TVs and so many other products are getting smarter and smarter.
Copyright holders have a right to protect their property, but times are changing fast. Some call right now a time of a "remix culture" where any media can be repurposed, added to, changed, and smashed together for videos, memes, and just plain fun. All of those remixes and references eventually cycle back to the original content through links, and word-of-txt advertising, but many times copyright holders don't care about that or don't understand those effects. This is nowhere more evident than in the SOPA and PIPA legislation, which can only hurt the Internet culture, and strengthen the hegemony of US corporations. We need the Internet to be free, and we hope you want the Internet to be free.
Right now, SOPA has stalled in the House, but has not been killed completely. PIPA is scheduled for a vote on January 24th in the Senate. We urge you to contact your representatives in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to voice your opinion on these bills. Also, here is a link to a Google petition against SOPA. And, of course, please share this article to spread the word about these bills.
For more of an in-depth breakdown of the language found in SOPA, we recommend Mashable's article, which was a great resource for us.