So What About SOPA?

Talk about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) has been fairly quiet in the past few weeks but that does not mean the proposed bill has fallen off Congress’s radar. If you haven’t heard of SOPA before, you probably have by now as many of the most influential websites including Wikipedia, Google, Tumblr, and Reddit went dark earlier in January to protest the highly debated bill. What’s so bad about SOPA and what good could it actually do if passed?

Generally speaking, SOPA is an anti-piracy bill working its way through Congress. Originally introduced on October 26, 2011, debate on SOPA has consisted of one hearing on November 16, 2011 and a “mark-up period” on December 15, 2011, which was designed to make the bill more agreeable to both parties. The originally proposed bill would allow the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), as well as copyright holders, to seek court orders against websites outside U.S. jurisdiction accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. A court order requested by the DOJ could include barring online advertising networks and payment facilitators from conducting business with websites found to infringe on federal criminal intellectual-property laws, barring search engines from linking to such sites, and requiring Internet service providers to block access to such sites. (Read the CRS Summary of the proposed bill, as initially introduced or read the full text).

The purported benefit of SOPA is the ability of IP owners to effectively pull the plug on foreign sites against whom they have a copyright claim. Supporters of the bill include the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), pharmaceuticals makers, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Proponents state it will protect the intellectual property market and corresponding industry, jobs and revenue, and is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws, especially against foreign websites. (Read the House press release discussing benefits of the bill). They assert that stronger enforcement tools are needed. However, not everyone agrees that the bill, as introduced, effectively achieves that benefit.

Opponents state the proposed legislation threatens free speech and innovation, and enables law enforcement to block access to entire internet domains due to infringing content posted on a single blog or webpage. They argue that the notice procedures are some of the most upsetting things about the bill. Specifically, in its original construction, IP owners could take action without a single court appearance or judicial sign-off. The bill only required IP owners to issue a single letter claiming a “good faith belief” that the target site has infringed on its content. For example, once Google or PayPal or whoever received the quarantine notice, they would have five days to either abide or to challenge the claim in court.

One of the most adverse effects that opponents address is the potential to for SOPA to shut down an entire domain for a single violation. For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) warned that websites Etsy, Flickr and Vimeo all seemed likely to shut down if the bill becomes law. Similarly, policy analysts for New America Foundation say this legislation would enable law enforcement to take down an entire domain due to something posted on a single blog, arguing, “an entire largely innocent online community could be punished for the actions of a tiny minority.”

SOPA, backed by Hollywood and opposed by large web companies and civil liberties groups, remains in limbo. During the December 15th debate, it became clear that SOPA supporters have a commanding majority on the committee. But where it goes from here is an open question that depends on where the House Republican leadership stands.