What is SOPA?

The Stop Online Piracy Act (HR 3261) is legislation currently being debated in Congress that would enable copyright holders and U.S. law enforcement to penalize websites trafficking in copyright infringement and counterfeit goods.

SOPA was introduced on Oct. 26, 2011 as a House counterpart to the Senate's Protect IP bill, a rewrite of the 2010's failed Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act. Protect IP, introduced on May 12, 2011 and passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, is currently on hold.

The goal of SOPA and Protect IP is to protect against foreign infringing sites and stop the sale of pirated goods—such as copyright-infringing music, bootleg movies, or fake pharmaceuticals—online, mainly from foreign websites. It would be up to internet service providers to block the URLs of "rogue" websites, and sites where a "portion" of content is deemed "dedicated to threat."

Who Would SOPA Affect?

The short answer: SOPA would affect anyone using the Internet.

Generally speaking, legislation offers limited solutions in addressing the problem of online piracy, and this legislation in particular has a number of shortcomings. Perhaps most importantly, the provisions in SOPA don't actually remove pirated content. SOPA penalties would only block the URLs of offending websites. Users could still access the pirated material by typing in IP addresses.

Of course, a blocked URL is more likely to hinder a casual browser than a determined consumer of pirated material. Blocking a URL, even temporarily, could damage a business in terms of revenue and reputation while leaving the infringing material available.

SOPA encourages self-censorship on the part of websites that currently promote free speech and democratic exchange of ideas. Any site hosting user-generated content—including sites like Youtube, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, or any search engine—would be liable for all the items users post.

In a testimony at the Nov. 16 hearing, Google's copyright counsel Katerine Oyama gave an example to illustrate how SOPA would harm and deter internet enterprise. If a start-up worked with 100 businesses, and one of those sellers happened to sell counterfeit T-shirts, the copyright holders or anyone else who believed they had been harmed by that seller could send a termination notice without actually contacting the seller, or the start-up, to resolve the issue. On receiving the notice, the start-up would have five days to determine if the suspect items were indeed infringing (a difficult task, even for legal experts) and deliver a counternotice or risk being shut down. Such a threat, Oyama pointed out, could discourage establishing a business in the first place, and discourage venture capitalists from investing in promising young internet enterprises.

SOPA could also have potential implications for international diplomacy, as Representative Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) pointed out in a question to Oyama, "How would this legislation likely be viewed by China and Iran and other countries that put these roadblocks up in terms of content to their citizens on the internet. And how would that affect our diplomacy?"

Speaking about Google's operations overseas, in countries such as Libya, Oyama said, "We see copyright use all the time as an excuse to quell speech. If we mandate this type of approach here we really need to think carefully about what types of ramifications that will have on free expression globally."

Who Supports SOPA? Who Opposes It?

Support for SOPA and Protect IP comes largely from the entertainment industry and pharmaceutical manufacturers, while opposition comes from technology and education companies. Supporting interest groups--such as the MPAA, RIAA, and media conglomerates—have given 4.5 times as much money as opposing groups, consistent with Hollywood's much larger lobbying budget.

Few disagree with SOPA's goals of protecting consumers against pirated goods that are clearly harmful, such as counterfeit drugs, or items falsely identified as meeting military standards. The problem, as with other counterfeit materials, is the difficulty of targeting such content without shutting down or limiting legitimate and vital sites along the way.

SOPA has inspired a viral backlash, led by Silicon Valley companies and played out on the very sites it hopes to defend from censorship. Mozilla, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, the Consumer Electronics Association, and other technology companies have been outspoken opponents, and many sites posted anti-censorship badges in the days surrounding the hearing.

Witnesses at the hearing were heavily stacked in favor of SOPA, Oyama was the only one of the six witnesses firmly opposing the bill. Linda Kirkpatrick of MasterCard also voiced opposition to some aspects of SOPA, objecting to the short response periods and high compliance costs.

What Do Representatives Say About SOPA?

Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is SOPA's sponsor in the House of Representatives. The bill has 24 cosponsors, Republicans and Democrats from all over the nation.

"To those who say that a bill to stop online theft will break the Internet, I would like to point out, that's not likely to happen," Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) said during the hearing. "There are some in the technology section that have said this bill will break the internet, and strangle start-ups and Silicon Valley giants alike."

Then Conyers held up a newspaper article. "I reluctantly ask to put this into the record: The Attack of the Internet Killers."

"This is very serious business," he said, laughing as he read from the editorial." Don't walk, run. Tell Congress there's a better way. Threatens internet security, kills cloud computer [sic], and an American job-crushing monster, that's our bill, HR 3261."

Smith asked, "Isn't that a comic?"

"No this is serious. It's a terrible thing," Conyers replied dryly. "We ought to know better [laughing]."

Though he was joking, Conyers was right: Congress ought to know better. Legislators have been famously slow adopters of technology, and legislation cannot keep pace with technical innovation. Conyers and the rest of Congress do not realize how the passing of SOPA could potentially affect the Internet as we know it.

How can we entrust such an important decision about technology to people who cannot keep pace with and understand the implications of technical innovation?

The bill is scheduled for markup on December 15. An aide to Smith said that in the weeks leading up to the markup—the process by which representatives debate, amend, and rewrite proposed legislation—the chairman will be in discussions with a variety of potentially affected parties and is "open to changes."

Originally published November 29, 2011 9:06 AM