“Everything,” if you prefer the flippant answer. And sadly, that’s not as far from the truth as we might like to believe. If you’re unfamiliar with SOPA (that’s the Stop Online Piracy Act), it’s a piece of anti-piracy legislation currently being debated in the House. You may have also heard it referred to by critics as the “American Censorship Bill” or “Internet Blacklist Bill”. Tempting as it may be to believe, those nicknames are not mere hyperbole. Indeed, should SOPA or a comparable bill pass, it could very well mark the beginning of the end for a free and open Internet.
The story of SOPA is a classic example of a corporate-sponsored bill that has been rushed through the legislative process by lobbyists and lawmakers too oblivious or disinterested to recognize the potential harm. More than that, this is the latest example of a disturbing (though certainly not new) trend on the part of copyright holders, particularly the RIAA and MPAA. While they certainly have a legitimate interest in protecting their copyrights, all too often they go about that in such a way that has little or no impact on the actual pirates but treats paying customers like criminals. My favorite example has always been the case of Spore, which was a hotly anticipated PC game prior to its launch a few years ago. Unfortunately, the game’s publisher elected to include an especially invasive and draconian form of DRM, which among other things limited users to three installations of a game that they paid for. In the end, not only did this only impact legitimate customers (as opposed to the pirates who were being targeted), but to make matters more embarrassing, a version of the game with this DRM removed leaked onto the Internet several days before the scheduled release date. SOPA is a larger scale manifestation of the same mentality, and it is from here that many of the problems with the bill arise.
While SOPA would do little to curtail actual piracy (it would at most inconvenience the pirates), it is the rest of us who would truly suffer. Indeed, the real impact would be felt through the chilling effect it would have on the Internet as we know it. While it chiefly targets the websites hosting the content in question (as opposed to the end user), it’s the way it goes about doing so that is so worrying. Among the more worrying elements of SOPA is the way it guts the safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Unlike current law, SOPA would make individual websites liable for any offending content, requiring them to not only monitor their own content more closely, but also the content of any websites they link to. It’s easy to see how this could spiral out of control, particularly in an age in which the pervasiveness of social media has made user-generated content a fact of life for many websites. Further, SOPA would penalize entire websites instead of individual pages. In other words, Comic Booked could conceivably be taken down if even a single article were deemed by a copyright holder to link to (not contain, not host, merely link to) a page they considered a threat. Not only would this have a tremendous impact on extant sites, but future startups would undoubtedly be wary of the sort of unprecedented legal liability to which they would be exposed, and concerns like these are only the tip of the iceberg.
The sad fact is that organizations like the MPAA and RIAA have spent much of the past decade abusing existing copyright law in the name of defending their intellectual property. When that has failed, they’ve resorted to increasingly draconian measures, including pushing the sort of horrendously short-sighted legislation we are dealing with today. Even though the sort of potential abuses that SOPA would permit may not be the intent of the bill, the fact remains that if the potential for abuse exists, sooner or later the abuse will happen. While I could go on at even greater length (and others have) about SOPA’s myriad problems, this article isn’t just about explaining why this is bad legislation, it’s about encouraging you, dear reader, to stand up and do something about it. Many of you already have, and for that I applaud you. If you haven’t, please reconsider. This is the sort of law that effects all of us, in ways both subtle and gross. While nobody is advocating piracy, there are better ways of dealing with the problem. Indeed, if the success of iTunes in a post-Napster world demonstrates anything, it’s that the market is still there and still willing to pay for content. The catch is that media companies need to think proactively instead of continuing this vicious cycle of reaction (some would argue overreaction). Unified platforms, reasonable prices and limited (if any) DRM are key, as are incentives. In other words, give consumers a reason, whatever it may be, to buy something instead of pirating it. While piracy is unfortunately a fact of life in the digital age, that doesn’t mean it can’t be mitigated. And it certainly is possible to mitigate it without devastating the free and open Internet and shredding the Constitution in the process.
In the past week, opponents of SOPA have been able to claim a pair of important victories. First, the White House released a statement on January 14th indicating that it would not support SOPA in its current form (citing concerns over potential censorship and effects on innovation and security). The following day, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor reportedly delayed a vote on SOPA pending a consensus on issues that were raised when the bill was presented to the House Judiciary Committee. Now, while it’s easy to hope that this is SOPA’s death knell, any declaration of victory would be premature. After all, even if SOPA is finished (though discussion is set to resume in February), we still have to worry about the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), which is the Senate’s companion bill. While SOPA appears to be stalling in the House, PIPA is still on track in the Senate, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid encouraging the chamber to simply pass it and move on. So if you’d heard about the White House’s announcement over the weekend, and wondered why today’s blackout was still important, there’s your answer. The fight for freedom of speech on the Internet isn’t limited to a single battle. It’s a constant struggle for inch after bloody inch. So if you haven’t already contacted your elected officials to speak out against SOPA and PIPA, I implore you to take action now.
While SOPA is hopefully on the ropes, as of this writing, the Senate has PIPA scheduled for a vote on January 24. Now is the time to get involved! So follow the links I’ve included below to learn more, sign petitions and contact Congress.
Read even more and sign a petition at americancensorship.org
Here’s one specifically targeting PIPA.
And another petition and some further information from MoveOn.
Modify your profile pictures to show your opposition to SOPA over at BlackoutSOPA.