Whether you’re a lumberjack or proud owner of a new startup, you’ve likely heard something about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) or Protect IP Act (PIPA) recently. In the eyes of the tech community, the recently proposed anti-piracy law is clearly the avatar for ‘Big Brother.’ In fact, growing angst within the tech industry culminated on January 15th in the form of a Web-based blackout protest. Google, WordPress and Wikipedia were among thousands of sites that censored their logos and content as a call to action against SOPA and PIPA.
Apparently, that pushback resonated with Congress. In fact, for the first time we saw Internet activism make a tangible impact on the legislative process. Following the blackout and backlash, SOPA’s co-sponsors began pulling their support until lead sponsor, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), reluctantly followed suit. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev), also postponed a Senate vote on PIPA, so the two bills have been shelved for now – it is unlikely that we’ll see a vote on either bill in its current form.
SOPA and PIPA propose that we entrust the entertainment industry to censor the Web as a means to thwart copyright infringement. For years companies, battling to protect their corporate reputations, have struggled to shut down unauthorized sites where people illegally download movies, TV shows and music, because many of these sites are based overseas and beyond U.S. jurisdiction. SOPA and PIPA would close that loophole, at the expense (many contend) of our ability to freely communicate and share information.
The legislation would give government the power to force U.S. Internet providers to block access to domain names enabling copyright infringement. But since every site can still be accessed via its numeric IP address, this tactic is largely ineffective.
To ensure copyright compliance, U.S. site operators would be responsible for policing content uploaded by their users. An entertainment company would merely have to make a case that their products or materials were being shared illegally. Imagine logging into Facebook or Twitter without being able to share a clip from your favorite movie or that new song that’s stuck in your head. Not to mention the million other sites we use that blend in copyrighted material.
While SOPA seems well-intended, the bill doesn’t appear to prevent copyright infringement. It more likely will raise the cost of copyright compliance and disrupt valuable ways in which we share information. One takeaway from the SOPA debate appears certain: the Web has become a preferred avenue for activism and protest. The practice of leveraging support from online communities will continue to grow and it will be interesting to see how that influences Congress in the future.