Whatever you’ve been doing on the internet in the last few weeks, chances are you ran across something about SOPA. Whether it was in blacked-out tweets and status updates, at the top of Reddit, or ‘blocked’ access to Tumblr, online protests in opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act that is being debated in the US House of Representatives have been all over the internet recently. And for good reason— SOPA is a big, big deal and it deserves the attention and action of anyone who cares about the future of the internet. In fact, SOPA— along with its companion bill in the Senate, the PROTECT IP Act— might just be the most dangerous internet legislation the US government has ever considered.
So what’s the big deal? What makes this bill so much worse than all of Congress’s other “anti-piracy” measures? Well, it would put in place an entire system of internet censorship that would empower the US government and corporations to block any website. The Department of Justice would have a blacklist of foreign “rogue sites” which fit a vague definition of enabling intellectual property infringement and would block American users from accessing these sites, in addition to cutting off the sites’ revenues from US-based advertising services and payment processors. All of this would happen within five days of the accusation of infringement, without any judge, any two-sided hearing, or any due process for the accused site. In fact, it further encourages pre-emptive “voluntary action” by offering immunity for internet service providers, browser producers, and search engines that block sites without even any infringement claims.
SOPA’s corporate backers in the recording and film industries focus on overseas sites that they refer to as “dedicated to intellectual property theft,” despite the fact that, for instance, targeted one-click file-hosting services like Rapidshare have been found legal in both American and European courts. In addition to plowing over such “rogue sites” that actually have substantial non-infringing uses, SOPA would also ensnare domestic sites that link to any infringing material or any “rogue site”— and would block the entire domain for even one link on one page. This means that any social media platform that hosts user-generated content— everything from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to Reddit, Tumblr, and Wikipedia— would become liable for everything their users post. SOPA, then, would overturn over a decade of precedent for internet law in the “safe harbor” provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that protect internet intermediaries from liability for what users do (an example of how prior copyright expansion legislation at least included some reasonable limitations).
SOPA would have a huge impact on freedom of expression, creativity, and innovation online. Doing away with safe harbor protections would place a massive burden on online services to police their users and more actively censor what they do online. This would have chilling effects on the free expression and creativity of users by encouraging self-censorship and would stifle innovative new start-ups with limited resources. Further, if whole platforms disappear from US access, the free expression of all other users becomes collateral damage. Of course, these very powerful tools for shutting down online activities hold great potential for abuse— especially when held by industries with a long history of using the law to expand their control and protect them from disruptive innovators.
Further, SOPA flies in the face of the principles of net neutrality and internet freedom that the US government evangelizes everywhere else around the world. While the US extols the virtues of free and open internet connectivity globally, SOPA would institute the same technical censorship system as China, Iran, Syria, and similarly repressive regimes. The only difference is that the American censorship system would instead be used to protect corporate profits— intellectual property now trumps all other rights. In addition to undermining American credibility in calling out authoritarian states’ internet censorship, SOPA would also set a precedent for other liberal democracies to further filter and block internet content. On top of all this, SOPA involves mucking around with the fundamental technical workings of the internet, with serious consequences for the stability and security of critical internet resources like the Domain Name System. By interfering with the connections between site addresses and the servers they are designed to connect to, SOPA’s blocking system would undermine the next-generation DNSSEC system being developed by the US government’s own internet security experts and all other internet protocols that depend on it working universally consistent.
SOPA is now in markup in the House Judiciary Committee, where the hearings have been laughably lopsided and the representatives have openly admitted their ignorance of the constitutional, economic, and technical implications of what they’re proposing. The bill’s sponsors were rushing for a vote before the holidays, but, after some last-minute jerking around with on-again-off-again sessions this week, it has now been delayed until some time in the new year. (PIPA has already made it out of committee and will be coming to the Senate floor in the new year.) This is a positive development: they weren’t able to ram it through committee around the holidays while fewer people are paying attention. However, SOPA’s supporters are surely counting on the large opposition effort losing momentum. If you find any of the above scary— if you don’t want to see your Facebook feed blacked out for real soon— you should help keep the pressure on Congress to stand up for freedom online.