How Threatening Is The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)?
Not too long ago, I reported on a new bill being considered in Congress that could result in the shut down of social media sites that have been critical to the Occupy movement. My focus at the time was on the threat to the protests more than it was about the total danger of such a bill. In fact, in my haste to raise the alarm in defense of OWS, I don’t remember even mentioning the name of the bill. Two months later, I’m watching television and the Stop Online Piracy Act, also known as SOPA, is mentioned. So, out of curiosity, I began looking for more information about the bill. Just how threatening is it?
As it turns out, the bill is very controversial. The bill has bipartisan support and opposition and even the business community is split. Introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R) in October 2011, SOPA is designed to stop the piracy of copyrighted works such as music and films. Proponents argue that only rogue sites, like those abroad, that knowingly and deliberately violate copyrights will be targeted. However, the legislation is broad and has many flaws that make it a serious threat to First Amendment rights, freedom of information, due process, business, social media, and of course, protests such as OWS.
SOPA poses a danger to the internet as we know it. Basically, under SOPA, an accusation of copyright violation is enough to allow the Department of Justice and any complainant who gets a court order, to shut down a website and websites that facilitate copyright infringement. Possible actions that could be taken include barring online advertising networks and payment facilitators like PayPal from doing business with the allegedly infringing website, barring search engines like Google and Bing from linking to such sites, and requiring Internet service providers to block access to such sites. In other words, website like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Google, Yahoo, AOL, Tumblr, Reddit, eBay, Youtube, and Mozilla could all be shut down on a single accusation of copyright infringement even if that violation was indirect or unknowing. The accused party doesn’t even have to be found guilty in a court of law first.
Even sites that are affiliated with alleged offenders could be blacklisted without doing anything wrong. Merely being associated with a site that allegedly infringes a copyright could just disappear along with any information on the sites. So you can type in a website address and the site won’t show up because it’s being blocked. So let’s say Facebook is accused of copyright infringement because a user posted a song or a movie still from another user on Youtube who found the song or still on Google. Facebook and all sites associated with Youtube and Google, could be shut down even if Facebook itself didn’t intentionally violate a copyright. It’s a guilty by association rule that undermines the Constitution. It also has the possibility of creating monopolies. Because the bill gives content owners the power to demand Paypal and Visa and ad services to stop providing financial services to alleged offenders. Content owners like record companies and Hollywood could issue five day notices to providers to stop servicing offenders without going to court at all. Funding for sites would then be strangled and the owners of such sites may not even become aware of the five day notice in time to counter an accusation. Essentially SOPA would censor sites, therefore removing competitors from the market. And the infuriating thing is that most complaints of copyright infringement that companies issue are bogus anyway.
SOPA could even kill innovation because of the amount of lawsuits generated because of accusations. Constant litigation would drain internet companies of critical funds they use to improve their services and create jobs. Can you imagine a world without Google, Twitter, Facebook, or Youtube? All the advancements in social technology that has allowed the swift sharing of knowledge and information, advancements that have been crucial for massive protests such as the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the Occupy movement in the United States and the rest of the world, would never have happened if SOPA had been enacted 20 years ago. The internet as we know it would be far more restrictive and less private.
To show how bad SOPA is, Google, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, Yahoo, eBay, Wikipedia, and Amazon.com are considering blacking out their sites on January 23rd, the day before Congress resumes debate on the controversial legislation. That would pretty much shut down the internet and hinder all the smaller websites that rely on social media users to share content, such as Addictinginfo.org.
SOPA is just the House bill. The Senate bill is called the Protect IP Act (PIPA), and it’s considered the twin to SOPA. These bills are bad for America and the rest of the free world. It is comparable to the kind of internet blackouts in China that we deplore. Mainstream media has remained silent about SOPA because the companies that own the media support the bill. The legislation is so bad that Nancy Pelosi, Darrell Issa, and Ron Paul are all against it. Since when have we seen those three stand together against something? It’s clear that SOPA represents a very real threat to the kind of freedom we enjoy on the world wide web on a daily basis, but if we fail to take action, that freedom will literally disappear before our eyes.