In late October, a bill was introduced to Capitol Hill by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), called the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. In short, this bill is being touted as a combative measure designed to foil movie and music piracy by allowing the copyright holders to shut down any websites or online services that include any infringing content. SOPA is backed by influential business lobbies, has bipartisan majority support in both the House and Senate, and is supported by powerful organizations such as the MPAA, Microsoft, and now even Apple.
If passed, SOPA would give the U.S. government the power to blacklist any website that possesses infringing material by utilizing the same DNS filtering techniques that are employed by Iran, China, and Syria. While the overall premise of fighting sites that advocate piracy of music, movies, or other intellectual property rights sounds promising, the real stickler behind the bill is what is classified as “infringing material”. Anything can fall beneath this vague category of copyright violation, from user posts within a social networking site, commentary within a web forum, even links sent in an email – remember that funny link you sent to your Grandma of dogs barking along with Beyonce? The government will – and with this bill they will have the power to step in, block the offending site for copyright infringement, cease any active revenue streams for the site owner, and coerce search engines like Google and Bing to block access to those sites as well.
This bill has garnered some steep criticism from corporations and activists alike. A letter of opposition was sent to Congress from the powerhouses of Facebook, Google, AOL, eBay, LinkedIn, Twitter, Mozilla, Zynga, and Yahoo.
“We support the bills’ stated goals – providing additional enforcement tools to combat foreign ‘rogue’ websites that are dedicated to copyright infringement or counterfeiting,” the letter says. “Unfortunately, the bills as drafted would expose law-abiding U.S. Internet and technology companies to new uncertain liabilities, private rights of action and technology mandates that would require monitoring of websites. We are concerned that these measures pose a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job-creation, as well as to our nation’s cybersecurity.”
If passed, this bill will have steep repercussions, and the Internet as we know it will be irrevocably altered. The sites devoted to piracy can still be directly accessible by their IP address as the bill does not support direct IP blocking, so in essence only a small percentage of pirate sites could even be affected. This bill screams "shoot first, ask questions later" and I wonder how many sites that are not considered "pirate" sites will be affected - sites like YouTube, Twitter, or even Facebook.
I do not advocate piracy, but I also do not advocate censorship. And essentially, this bill puts that power directly into our government’s hands. There’s a fine line to walk between black and white, and it’s SOPA’s gray area that is the most disturbing of them all.
You can learn more about the Stop Online Piracy Act here. You can also write your Congress Representative here and tell them that you don’t support legitimizing government blacklisting.