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The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) How it Affects the Internet

Published on December 2, 2011
Tags: Web Site Law

In recent weeks, you may have read about something called the Stop Online Piracy Act. Or, to give it the acronym such things seem to require these days, SOPA. This is a bill that has been introduced by a member of the US House of Representatives with the aim of… you guessed it, stopping online piracy.

This bill has caused something of an outcry among various groups – but what is it actually all about? There’s been a lot of controversy over this piece of legislation and it’s something that people have been getting heated about on both sides of the debate, so we thought we’d try and cut through the hyperbole to see what is actually going on.

Essentially, at the heart of this bill is an issue of copyright. The purpose of SOPA is meant to be to try and stop copyright infringement – specifically, the infringement of the copyright of American creative products that are illegally ‘shared’ on the internet by sites based in other countries. Currently, trying to bring these sites to justice in the US is relatively useless because they’re all based offshore.

So on the one hand, it’s possible to see the logic behind introducing SOPA as a bill: people who create a product, whether it’s music, a film or something else, have a legal right to copyright. And, unlike patents which are issued by nation states following an application process, copyright is automatic and universal. If anyone tries to infringe it, the holder of the copyright has a right to challenge them.

High profile supporters of the bill include the kind of groups you might expect to support copyright enforcement, including the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America. Another interesting supporter is the US Chamber of Commerce – this is an organisation that usually fights for ‘free enterprise’ but is supporting SOPA on the grounds that rogue websites threaten ’19 million American jobs’.

However, on the other side of the debate we have many of the US’ internet giants. Organisations such as Google, eBay, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and AOL are all opposed to SOPA because they fear that if it were to become law, it would make it harder for the web to innovate – largely because it would invite a lot of lawsuits, which are hardly ideal for creating an innovative atmosphere.

In a way, SOPA is similar to a bill that was introduced in the US Senate, the Protect IP Bill. However, SOPA goes one step further: where Protect IP was focused on groups such as domain name providers, SOPA targets internet providers themselves – in order to deal with targeted ‘rogue websites’, the idea is that the US Attorney General would get a court order that effectively compels internet providers to withdraw support from those sites.

Arguably, it is this that has helped to make the current bill so controversial. But what are the implications for web users if this Act is passed and eventually becomes law? It’s hard to make accurate predictions when the legislation is still being debated and it’s not guaranteed to pass, but it seems as though certain popular websites would no longer be available (at least not in the US, but seeing as the European Parliament recently approved a motion that stresses the need to refrain from ‘unilateral measures to revoke IP addresses or domain names’, it seems as though it could create international issues as well).

Another reason it is controversial is because it has potential security implications. This is because internet providers would be required to redirect certain domain names (such as those of sites containing pirated information) to US security organisations. This matters because it contradicts with something called DNSSEC, which is designed to make things more secure for web users. There’s also a worry that innocent sites could be unfairly damaged – and even that cybersecurity could be compromised.

For now, though, we need to wait and see what happens. There’s big, well-funded support on both sides of the SOPA debate. However, it’s worth pointing out that despite all the noise about SOPA, it still hasn’t come to a vote on the House floor and could be subject to further hearings about its security implications before that’s allowed to happen – and even then there’s no guarantee it will get onto the schedule. But should it make it through it could affect us all, whether we're in the US or not.

One thing, though, stands out: whichever side of the debate you may stand on, it seems fair to say that absolutely everyone is passionate about creating and promoting good content – the main dispute is over how to go about it.

By Chelsey Evans

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