Thursday, January 12, 2012

What is the SOPA Act and how will it affect you?


SOPA stands for Stop Online Piracy Act, which is House Bill #3261.  This is a very controversial piece of legislation.  In the introduction to the bill, its stated purpose is, "To promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes."

This sounds reasonable, although the vague, "...and for other purposes" part is worrisome.  But to members of Congress, this one line summary may seem positive and helpful.  If you scroll down to Section 101 you'll find a list of 24 definitions of various terms like 'domain name system server' and 'internet protocol allocation entity.'  Actually, the terms aren't that complicated when you read them, but I have my doubts about our legislators taking the time and interest to do so.

In theory, SOPA is supposed to protect companies and individuals whose copyrighted material is stolen and used by someone else on the Internet.  The problem is that it deals with 'accusing,' where someone who is accused of copyright violations can have their web site shut down before they have their day in court to plead their case.  Instead of 'considered innocent until proven guilty,' it is 'guilty until proven innocent.'

Furthermore, the Attorney General could not only shut down the site, they could order its listing removed from search engines, and force its payment partners not to do business with the site.  The government could also order domain service providers to block designated sites.

This has the potential for a great deal of abuse, especially in the area of censorship. 

In addition, it's not known whether SOPA would really do much to stop dedicated, organized online piracy.  It's interesting to note that while many companies in Hollywood and the music industry are for the bill, organizations like the ALA (American Library Association) and Library Copyright Alliance are against it. 

One section of the bill deals with making it illegal to link to pirated or copyrighted material.  However, what happens if your blog has a link to another blog that is accused of a violation? Will your site be shut down, too?

The bill is too complex for many of the legislators voting on it, and too broad and powerful for the agencies who may be tasked with enforcing it.  The potential for abuse is large.

One alternative is the OPEN legislation introduced by Representative Darrell Issa of California and Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon.  OPEN is the Online Enforcement and Protection of Digital Trade Act, and it targets the money flow to sites AFTER they are found to be illegal.

Another alternative is to enforce existing laws, instead of coming up with a whole new set. 

If you feel strongly about SOPA and you're a United States citizen, you may consider emailing your Congress member or Senator.  If you live outside the US, you might investigate and see if similar legislation is on its way to a vote in your country.

The Internet is one of the few places where the flow of information is less regulated and the possibility of free speech exists.  Let's keep it that way.

(Here is the link to the House bill.  An EFF article about how SOPA affects students, educators and libraries, and a one-page fact sheet.  A Fox Business News article about Reddit'sresponse to the bill, and an article about OPEN.  The pic is from:tumblr and its a prison in Cuba based on Bentham's panopticon model)

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