In 500 Words: SOPA/PIPA and the Great Internet Blackout*

For many, today may be the first that they will have heard of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), the two pieces of substantially similar legislation pending in (respectively) the House and the Senate which prominent sites today are going dark to protest. For my first post on Stone Soup (and hopefully the first in a regular series that will aim to provide context for current events–more on this in the future), I will not only attempt to provide an objective overview of SOPA/PIPA geared at newcomers to this issue but will also try to do so in under 500 words (starting after this sentence). 

The Basics. SOPA and PIPA, which have received broad bipartisan support, represent the latest Congressional efforts to address the perennial problem of foreign piracy Web sites—problematic because they harm American copyright holders, benefit from American-based search engines, advertising, and payment systems, yet tend to escape liability under U.S. law—by granting sweeping new enforcement powers to rights-holders and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Both work by choking off funding and American user access to foreign piracy sites; specifically, SOPA/PIPA would allow the DOJ to require (1) search engines to de-index and remove all links to an infringing site (and, it appears, to continually police against such links); (2) payment processors (like PayPal) and advertisers to stop doing business with the site; and, perhaps most controversially, (3) Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block customer access to the foreign site entirely. These obligations represent a potentially radical change from the current Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) regime, under which intermediary sites merely hosting or linking to infringing material are exempted from liability as long as they make good-faith efforts to take down infringing material when asked to.

The Criticisms. Though sponsors of SOPA/PIPA insist they target only “foreign Web sites that are primarily dedicated to illegal and infringing activity,” the two bills are drafted in broad language, leaving unclear the scope of key terms such as “foreign” or “search engine.” These ambiguities potentially allow the legislation to be interpreted to encompass even domestic sites, including social networking sites, sites such as Reddit made up primarily of user-shared links, and blogs, among others. Critics argue that this uncertain yet potentially significant liability for intermediaries will hurt startups and smaller firms and that permitting entire sites to be blocked via their domain name raises the specter of censorship. Critics also argue that the bills’ reliance on Domain Name Servers (DNS)-blocking as an enforcement tool could alter the very architecture of the Internet, an argument which has recently succeeded in persuading legislators to drop those provisions.

The Politics. The SOPA/PIPA debate pits the historically politically well-connected entertainment industry (which has spent $91M thus far lobbying for SOPA/PIPA) and the similarly formidable U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO (persuaded of online piracy’s harm to American jobs) against the far less politically-established tech and internet industries (among other allies), which are nevertheless in an interestingly unique position to influence citizens directly. Until recently, approval of SOPA by the House Judiciary Committee (which would send the bill to the full House for a vote) seemed all but guaranteed. However, with this most recent January 18 protest and with the White House’s strong hint disapproval of the two bills on January 14, passage of the bills is now far from certain. A Senate debate on PIPA is scheduled for January 24, while SOPA will be debated in the House in early February. However, even if defeated this time, aspects of SOPA/PIPA are likely to return in other forms. Meanwhile, a counter-proposal is now also pending in the form of the OPEN Act.

*This post primarily written without the assistance of Wikipedia.