For the past several weeks, the tech world has been up in arms about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that was introduced in the House of Representatives by Lamar Smith (R-TX) on October 26. More recently, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on SOPA on November 16, highlighting the camps for and against the proposed bill. Parties for the passage of SOPA include members of Congress, the Chamber of Commerce, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and the AFL-CIO. Parties against SOPA include Google, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, AOL, the Human Rights Watch, and the ACLU.
The main thrust of SOPA would allow the federal government to “block service providers, search engines, payment processors, and advertising networks it considers to be facilitating illegal online activity, such as streaming pirated television programs, films or selling pharmaceuticals.” Infringing material includes anything containing copyrighted materials. This would include user posted links – even those contained in email. Websites hosting these infringing materials would be held liable, could possibly lose government funding, and be blocked by search engines.
While the intent of SOPA – enforcing copyright infringement on the Internet – is legitimate, opponents call the measures proposed by the bill draconian and assert that the new measures would stifle innovation and creep uncomfortably close to censorship. Worrisome possibilities include allowing law-abiding websites to be shut down when users post links to infringing websites; a felony sentencing for posting videos with any copyrighted material, including background music, film clips, clips from national broadcast sports games, and cover songs; and requiring search engines, payment processors, ISPs, and ad networks to block access to “rogue websites.”
Many of SOPA’s opponents argue that the provisions of the bill go completely against the nature of the Internet itself:
The Internet is designed to empower individuals not control them…services like Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, WordPress, and Soundcloud assume people will be generous with their ideas, insights and creations. Wikipedia has proven that people will share their knowledge. Companies like Kickstarter show that people will even be generous with their money. This does not mean that there are not bad people out there. All of these companies spend a lot of time and money to battle spam and fraud. The companies are simply betting that there are many more good people than bad. The architecture of the Internet shares this assumption. It could have been designed to prevent bad behavior. Instead its design empowers good behavior.
In short, SOPA, in its attempt to enforce copyright laws and prevent online piracy, will target these essentially good people whose contributions are important for innovation while bad actors will always find a way to circumvent the system.
Interestingly, until recently, the entertainment industry was joined in its support for the passage of SOPA by the Business Software Alliance (BSA), which includes huge names such as Microsoft, Apple, and Intel. The BSA’s official statement was that they supported SOPA “to curb the growing rash of software piracy and other forms of intellectual property theft that are being perpetrated by illicit websites.” However, last week, the BSA changed its mind about SOPA and pulled its support. It seems like Microsoft and AT&T are also backing down.
After the House Judiciary Committee hearing on November 17, the chances of SOPA being passed have lessened. Both Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Darrell Issa (R-CA) have publicly come out against SOPA. Members of Congress are realizing that the provisions of SOPA are going far beyond the intended purpose of protecting intellectual property. Pelosi released a statement saying that “The internet, human rights, and cybersecurity communities have raised concerns that SOPA doesn’t strike the right balance that protects the needs of copyright holders and internet users alike. Tens of thousands of jobs in all the affected industries require us to find an effective solution that all stakeholders can support.”
Hopefully Pelosi and Issa will be joined by other Representatives in rejecting the overly ambitious SOPA, creating the opportunity for its opponents to suggest new ways in which to enforce copyrighted materials on the Internet.