What is a SOPA? Isn’t that Spanish for soup? And isn’t PIPA Kate Middleton’s hotter-looking younger sister? Well, not exactly Beavis. SOPA actually stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act and PIPA for the PROTECT IP Act, or the longer form “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act.” That mouthful of a title alone should give you the gist of the legislation that's being foisted upon the country by our dear leaders in Congress.
SOPA is sponsored by the House of Representatives and PIPA by the Senate, but both acts promote similar ideas for putting an end to online piracy. In predictably snooze-worthy language, PIPA proposes that search engines, websites, or more confusingly, “information location tools” that link to pirate domains “take technically feasible and reasonable measures, as expeditiously as possible, to remove or disable access to the Internet site associated with the domain name set forth in the order." (Try reciting that after six beers.)
In laymen’s terms, the old rules that allowed you to post whatever you wanted until you received a “cease and desist” (more formally known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [DMCA] notice-and-takedown provision) are out the window and the new rules stipulate that you monitor your own content or risk suspension of advertising services, financial transactions and hosting, not to mention opening yourself up to a whole rat’s nest of intellectual property litigation. The maximum penalty for unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content would be five years in prison for ten violations within six months, which means it could take over a year to safely stream an entire album on your blog, or even longer for a hip hop record.
The companies that stand to gain from this new legislation are namely the big players in the cable, motion picture and recording industries who lost billions in revenue in the pre-DMCA era including the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and Viacom, in addition to other companies whose businesses rely exclusively on trademarked products, like Revlon, the NBA, Nike and Pfizer to name a few of the over 350 organizations that support passage of SOPA/PIPA.
Interestingly enough, the burden of policing potential infringements weighs heavily on social media, search and content giants like Google, Yahoo!, AOL, Facebook, Wikipedia, eBay, Twitter and countless others. These equally well-heeled opponents are arguing that the bills will do everything from violate the First Amendment to break the whole freaking Internet. The battle is shaping up to be a showdown between two competing business models, and as is often the case with fights in Bartertown, “two men enter, one man leave.”
In all fairness, the Internet-breaking provisions requiring changes to Domain Name Servers have been removed from their respective bills. While the proponents of SOPA/PIPA are rosily imagining a world where everybody pays for content, the likelihood of an airtight Internet is still a figment of their collective imagination. Users of the black market websites and torrent hubs that are the intended targets of the legislation will still be able to circumvent any proposed controls. The unintended consequences, however, of changing the way the Internet works could have far-reaching negative impacts on privacy, innovation and digital commerce.
So far the White House has kept its fingernails clean in the debate, stating “Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small…We must avoid creating new cybersecurity risks or disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet.” Still, the mode in which Congress appears to be barreling toward passing something in the near future reeks of a done deal.
The anti-SOPA/PIPA gang is waging one last ditch counter-attack to alter the course of the legislation by blacking out significant portions of the web to protest and bring attention to the issue. Informally known as the SOPA Blackout, some of the major players on the Internet will be making their absence known in cyberspace. While Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, Wordpress and Boing Boing will shut their “doors” for 24 hours, Google will post a link on its infamous blank canvas of a home page that marks a soft, flaccid kind of solidarity with the Blackout crowd. For all its previous support, Twitter will abstain from the blackout which may be a good thing since it will probably serve as a sounding board for the action. With the Senate voting on PIPA on January 24th, the House has agreed to reach a consenus before bringing SOPA up for a vote. The amount of noise brought on by the silence should give an indication of which way the next boot heel will fall.