SOPA – “This Ain’t no Internet Soap Opera”


Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican Representative and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), as a bill in the United States House of Representatives on October 26, 2011, backed by a group of 12 co-sponsors. Though the Texas Republican expected that the bill could generate some tongue wagging, he probably never anticipated the kind of heated outcry from Internet users that SOPA provoked over the last few months.

The Bill intends to allow the US Department of Justice, as well as copyright holders, to seek court orders against websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. For unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content punishments could range up to a five years prison terms for 10 pieces of music or movies within six months in addition to barring online advertising networks, preventing linking to erring sites on search engines results and could also involve punishing payment facilitators for doing business with the infringing website. Moreover, the bill would enable immunity to Internet services that voluntarily take action against websites dedicated to infringement. Opponents of the bill say that it infringes on First Amendment rights, and is deemed as direct Internet control and censorship which will cripple the Internet, and threaten free speech.

While the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), passed in 1998, includes a provision under which copyright owners are required to submit a notice to websites found infringing on their copyright to ask for the material to be removed, after which the websites are given limited period of time to remove such material, SOPA would override this provision, allowing judges to immediately block access to any website found guilty of hosting copyrighted material. Etsy, Flickr and Vimeo will have to shut down, the Electronic Frontier Foundation warned, if the bill becomes law as the bill would ban linking to sites deemed offending, even in search results and on services such as Twitter.

On November 15, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, eBay, Mozilla, Yahoo, AOL, and LinkedIn wrote a letter to key members of the US Senate and House of Representatives, arguing that SOPA posed “a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job creation, as well as to our nation’s cybersecurity.” Going one step further, Yahoo quit the US Chamber of Commerce, acting swiftly against the organization’s support for SOPA. Here is a list of those who strongly oppose the SOPA which include the top internet companies, CEO’s from across all industries, Non-profit Organizations, Industry Associations, International Human Rights Organizations, Editorial Boards, Academicians, and more.

The House Judiciary Committee held hearings on SOPA on November 16 and December 15, 2011 and has scheduled to continue debate when Congress returns from its winter recess. In both the hearings, the concern expressed by the observers was that the arguments lacked technical expertise.

More than 20 amendments had been rejected, including the OPEN (the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act), by Darrell Issa which would have stripped provisions targeting search engines and Internet providers. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has rejected the bill proposed by Representative Darrell Issa and Senator Ron Wyden as an alternative to the controversy-laden SOPA. While SOPA would be policed by the Department of Justice, Darrell Issa’s OPEN would belong to the International Trade Commission. Considering RIAA to be the chief proponent of SOPA from the start, it’s hardly surprising that it opposes OPEN which it sees as less effective.

Senior executive vice president of RIAA Mitch Gazlier, said: “SOPA was introduced to address the devastating and immediate impact of foreign rogue sites dealing in infringing and counterfeiting works and products. … Why in the world would we shift enforcement against these sites from the Department of Justice and others who are well-versed in these issues to the ITC, which focuses on patents and clearly does not operate on the short time frame necessary to be effective?”

Here are a few reactions that would give you more insights into why SOPA is facing the heat.

Adam Thierer, Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center – “The techno-ignorance of Congress was on full display. Member after member admitted that they really didn’t have any idea what impact SOPA’s regulatory provisions would have on the DNS, online security, or much of anything else.”

eWeek – “The language of SOPA is so broad, the rules so unconnected to the reality of Internet technology and the penalties so disconnected from the alleged crimes that this bill could effectively kill e-commerce or even normal Internet use. The bill also has grave implications for existing U.S., foreign and international laws and is sure to spend decades in court challenges.”

Edward J. Black, President and CEO of the Computer & Communication Industry Association– “Ironically, it would do little to stop actual pirate websites, which could simply reappear hours later under a different name, if their numeric web addresses aren’t public even sooner. Anyone who knows or has that web address would still be able to reach the offending website.”

Fortune Magazine – “This is just another case of Congress doing the bidding of powerful lobbyists—in this case, Hollywood and the music industry, among others. It would be downright mundane if the legislation weren’t so draconian and the rhetoric surrounding it weren’t so transparently pandering.”

Laurence Tribe, Harvard Law Professor and author of a treatise titled American Constitutional Law – “an entire Web site containing tens of thousands of pages could be targeted if only a single page were accused of infringement.”

Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation – “Hyperlocal news sites would be as vulnerable as any other site on the internet, particularly if they incorporate user-generated content. Under this legislation, a few false moves by contributors might make the site inaccessible.”

A mid-December two-day debate in the House Judiciary committee made it pretty clear that SOPA supporters have a commanding majority on the committee and are expected to approve it when Congress returns in 2012. Where it goes from there is an open question.

AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo and Zynga in a letter to Issa and Wyden – “[The OPEN Act’s] approach targets foreign rogue sites without inflicting collateral damage on legitimate, law-abiding U.S. Internet companies by bringing well-established international trade remedies to bear on this problem.”

For a visual understanding of what SOPA could do, take a look at the Infographics.