SOPA Heading

On October 26, 2011, Rep. Lamar Smith and a bipartisan group of 12 initial sponsors introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act to the U.S. House of Representatives. SOPA, as its widely known, is currently before the House Judiciary Committee and has alternately been called everything from “The Bill that wants to cripple your Internet,” to “The end of bloggers.” Controversy surrounding SOPA has cost GoDaddy.com hundreds of thousands of dollars in business already. A much-hyped Google Doc called SOPA for Dummies asserts that, “Mainstream media outlets will not cover this bill because they are the ones lobbying for it.” BusinessInsurance.org produced a helpful – and huge! – infographic on how SOPA could impact “Business and Innovation.” And Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian has been following SOPA for months and spoken widely on the matter.

So, What IS SOPA?

SOPA - What is it?
Don’t be ashamed if you’re not sure. SOPA is confusing. Read the full text of the bill if you dare, and share your assessment of it in the comments if you do! Then check out SOPA’s Senate cousin, the Protect IP Act.

The ostensible point of SOPA is, as the name would imply, to combat illegal online piracy of copyrighted digital media. Stealing stuff is wrong, and it’s a big economic problem for certain sectors of the entertainment and software industries (among others) in the U.S. So it makes sense that the government should do something to fight the problem, enforce the laws, and stop the illegal thievery.

The United States Chamber of Commerce, in a letter to The New York Times, focused the problem on,”Rogue Web sites that steal America’s innovative and creative products.” The Chamber claims said sites “attract more than 53 billion visits a year and threaten more than 19 million American jobs.” The Motion Picture Association of America devotes a section of their Website to rogue sites, as well.

I’m all for laws to protect the innocent from being victimized by thieves. But there’s a problem with SOPA, and it’s a big one. The problem lies in the free-wheeling abuse of power that could very easily result if SOPA as currently written is enacted.  SOPA is written to allow companies to block the domain names of virtually any Website they think might – just might – be encouraging copyright infringement. This includes content posted by individual users on social networking sites as well as media outlets like TechnoBuffalo, and everyone in between. Imagine TechnoBuffalo ran an article that some copyright holder didn’t like, and the copyright holder crafted an argument that TechnoBuffalo was encouraging copyright infringement vis-a-vis said article. Boom, TechnoBuffalo.com would be blocked. There’s no burden of proof, or at least not a sensibly rigorous one, placed on the “victims” before they’re allowed to invoke SOPA and block domains.

Here’s a more extreme, but perfectly plausible example: Somebody posts a photo of Kanye on Facebook. A company complains that said photo infringes on their copyright – maybe a media company who contracted the photographer who took the original picture. Down goes Facebook.com. All of it. As the aforementioned SOPA for Dummies puts it (hat tip, TNW):

SOPA explicitly states that companies will be liable for everything their users post. Sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, Wikipedia, or any sites that allow user generated content CANNOT exist under these laws. Immediately after this bill is passed, you will see the media mafia (MPIAA, RIAA, etc) replacing websites like Wikipedia with commercialized encyclopedia software. Mainstream media outlets will not cover this bill because they are the ones lobbying for it.

So right there you’ve got a huge threat to the Open Web and free speech in general. SOPA would dispense with checks and balances in the name of ensuring that anybody with an economic interest related to “copyright infringement” can block domains now, whether or not the appropriate questions are even asked later. While the act provides for an appeal process to get a particular domain reinstated, if you’ve ever employed a lawyer to deal with legal matters you know how time and resource intensive even a “simple” legal appeal can become.

Don’t stop here, though. There’s a second, even more ridiculous problem with SOPA.

SOPA could prove insanely easy to get around.

SOPA Army

SOPA lets companies block domain names, but it might not do much to IP addresses. For the less technical out there, an IP address is kind of like your address on the InterWebs. TechnoBuffalo.com is our URL (domain name), but you can also access our site by entering the appropriate IP address into your Web browser. So if the name TechnoBuffalo.com is blocked by SOPA but you know our IP address, you can still get to us (More or less – see the comments of this Lifehacker post for more on the intricacies of domain names vs IP addresses).

If you know anything at all about torrents and other ways large files are shared online, you’re likely laughing so hard you haven’t got to the end of this sentence. Most anybody with the skillz to traffic in the sorts of large, high-quality media files that movie studios and software companies are concerned about will also have the skills to work with numerical IP addresses in lieu of domain names. It’s not like the proverbial “guy in his Mom’s basement” with terabytes’ worth of HD copies of first-run movies is going to be put off by having to type 192.168.1.0 into his video pirating machine.

Now, there’s a debate as to whether or not SOPA could impact IP addresses as well, and the bill can of course be revised and amended before it becomes law (if it ever does). But one of the main criticisms being levied at the thing is that the folks who wrote the bill simply don’t know enough about the topic to be proposing solutions for online piracy, let alone drafting legislature governing use and possible censure of the Internet.

Heck, even conservatives and liberals in the US agree on the potential consequences of SOPA – and Red and Blue never agree on anything:

If either the U.S. Senate’s Protect IP Act (PIPA) & the U.S. House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) become law, political blogs such as Red Mass Group [conservative] & Blue Mass Group [liberal] will cease to exist,

What to do?

SOPA Hoist

A bunch of huge sites that you likely use on a regular basis, including Google and Twitter, have come out in opposition to SOPA. But don’t just take their or our word for it. Pour yourself something to drink, grab your laptop or tablet, and do some reading. Start with the bill itself (.pdf link), the links back up there in the first paragraph or simple search the Web for “SOPA.” You’ll have plenty to keep you busy.

Once you’ve made up your mind on the matter, should you choose to protest SOPA and PIPA, you can do so in a few easy steps. As always, call your congressperson. You can also write a letter to your congressperson via the handy-dandy American Censorship Day site, though it’s recommended that folks who live in Texas, Michigan, Vermont, or Iowa go the route of calling.

Whatever you do, if you care about the future of the Internet, don’t sit by idly. Get informed, make up your own mind, and get involved!