Why are sites protesting SOPA, PIPA?

By January 18, 2012 News


so·pa ˈsō-pə – Stop Online Piracy Act. A proposed bill in the US House of representatives that aims to crack down on copyright infringement by restricting access to sites that host pirated content.

pi·pa ˈpi- pə – PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act). A proposed law with the stated goal of giving the US government and copyright holders additional tools to curb access to “rogue websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods”, especially those registered outside the U.S.

You may have noticed that many of your favorite sites, including Wikipedia, WordPress, and even the Google doodle are blacked out today in protest of SOPA and PIPA, two proposed bills that would attempt to cut down online copyright infringement by specifically targeting overseas sites. So whats the big deal? Why are legislators proposing the bill and why do so many online organizations oppose it? Isn’t there already a law about that anyway?

Isn’t copyright infringement already illegal? 

Yes. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 lays out the current procedure for enforcing online copyright laws. Under the DMCA, copyright infringement is addressed with the following steps:

  1. The intellectual property owners send a “takedown notice” to the infringing site.
  2. When it receives a DMCA warning, the infringing site must notify the user who supplied the content in question. The site is protected against liability as long as it removes the content within a reasonable timeframe.
  3. The user then has the right to file a counter-motion to demonstrate that the content doesn’t infringe on any copyrights. If disagreement continues, the issue may be brought to court.
For the past decade, this procedure has been working just fine, hasn’t it?

Wikipedia has blacked out all pages except their pages on SOPA and PIPA in protest of the legislation.

What’s wrong with DMCA?

Critics say that while DMCA allows the government to force US based sites to remove copyrighted material, it’s useless against overseas sites.

SOPA and PIPA attempt to remedy this by making it harder for overseas sites to operate. Under the proposed laws, the government could effectively stop US companies from providing services to overseas sites that infringe on copyright as well as limiting US internet users’ access to those sites.

As CNNMoney puts it, “SOPA’s goal is to cut off pirate sites’ oxygen by requiring U.S. search engines, advertising networks and other providers to withhold their services.”

What’s so controversial about that? Can’t we all agree that protecting content is a worthy goal? The controversy isn’t over the goal, but rather over the means of achieving that goal.

Why are people concerned with SOPA and PIPA?

Opponents have two main concerns with the proposed legislation:

  1. Their vague language holds a high potential for unintended consequences.
  2. They restrict first amendment rights to free speech and effectively promotes censorship

While not as drastic as some sites, Google joined the protest by blacking out the Google Doodle.

Unintended consequences:

Under the DMCA, responsibility to police content for copyright infringement lies on intelectual property owners, not site owners. As long as the site’s primary purpose is not illegally distributing copyrighted material, site owners are only held liable once copyright infringement is brought to their attention.

But SOPA goes a step further, potentially holding site owners responsible for content their users upload. A site could be deemed a SOPA scofflaw if it takes “deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability” that its service will be used for copyright infringement. What exactly does that mean? Beats me. Its this kind of swampy language that scares opponents as it potentially gives power to intellectual copyright  holders (movie studios, record labels, etc) to shutdown the tools for sharing information – copyrighted or non-copyrighted. This includes sites like youtube, Facebook, etc.

Further, SOPA does not require a court or judicial sign-off for intellectual property owners to take action against targeted sites. It simply requires a letter claiming a “good faith belief” that the site in question has infringed on intellectual property. The bills protect providers who proactively shutter sites they considers to be infringers. This means the large media corporations could get sites blacklisted from the internet simply by publicizing a list of infringing sites.

Freedom of speech concerns: 

The internet has been praised for helping to democratize the spread of information by providing a platform for anyone to voice their opinion to a potentially broad audience. These sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, and Reddit are the backbone of that free information exchange.

Opponents argue that rather than targeting copyright infringers, the legislation targets the tools through which people share information, copyrighted or otherwise. In effect, opponents believe that SOPA and PIPA sacrifice free speech in favor of protecting intellectual property.

Of course, because this is politics, we also have to throw lobbyists, hidden agendas, and economic consequences into the mix to further complicate the matter. This is of course just the tip of the ice burgh. If you notice any key elements that I failed to touch on, please, address them in the comments below.

Disclaimer: I have done my best to dig out the most important information and present it in an unbiased way. However, like most pieces of legislation, both SOPA and PIPA are highly complex and difficult to fully grasp. Further, both of the most common information sources (national news organizations and the internet) have high stakes in these laws and are thus biased in their delivery. For these two reasons, I warn that this article is neither a complete nor an unbiased interpretation of SOPA and PIPA.

Images via Mashable.com.

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