The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) has been making waves in online communities around the world as a piece of legislation that, if passed, has the ability to make a profound difference in the way we interact with others online.
Some would say, it would “break the Internet.”
SOPA, introduced in the United States House of Representatives as HR 3261 by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) on Oct. 26, elevates Internet piracy, unauthorized redistribution of content, to the federal level, making it a felony to stream or share content illegally and requiring Department of Justice intervention in arbitrating disputes of copyright infringement.
SOPA has a straightforward and ostensibly noble objective: stop online piracy. This bill would allow entities to begin legal action against websites that are believed to be redistributing content. The means to seek restitution for copyright infringement exists already, but the byzantine procedure of seeking court orders against the offender rarely yields justice.
But it’s not the copyright aspect that people are getting upset over.
SOPA could possibly create an environment where anyone even remotely connected to the offending content is a suspect. Anyone linking to the alleged pirated content is subject to federal blocking. That includes search engines, advertisements, payment methods and even small personal websites that inadvertently link to the offender.
The Google search engine would be unable to generate fair results. The third-party advertising industry, a significant source of revenue for producers of original content, such as webcomic artists, would suffer. Payment methods such as Paypal would be unable to do business. All these would be subject to censure for being associated with these sites.
Sites would become responsible for any user-generated content, meaning sites like Facebook and Reddit that rely almost completely on user submissions would be rendered completely useless. Small businesses and new Internet startups would be more reluctant to launch given the oppressive legal environment.
Jesse Brown, of Macleans, Calif., writes, “Though the bills were not designed to be censorship legislation, censorship could be the outcome.”
SOPA has a noble objective, but the means by which it will achieve that are troubling. Sites would be blocked from the moment a claim of copyright infringement appears until a formal investigation can be carried out. It is easy to see how this could be maliciously exploited.
Naturally, United States users do not access only websites hosted stateside. It remains to be seen how the act would handle access to websites from other countries.
Countries with government-supported internship censorship include China, Iran and Syria. In the People’s Republic of China it is impossible to access Facebook, Youtube and a significant part of Wikipedia, among others.
The PRC has a history of reactionary censorship: a recent example being their immediate censorship of any website announcing the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Lu Xiaobo, a Chinese human rights activist who spoke out against the Chinese government on multiple occasions.
Students would be affected by SOPA. Besides witnessing sanctions on their usual online recreational outlets, students might suffer from the censure of free knowledge databases such as Wikipedia.
SOPA faces opposition from nearly all technology giants, including Microsoft, Google, Twitter and the Mozilla Corporation, as well as, politicians, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Large online communities such as Tumblr, which thrives on sharing content original or otherwise, have made clear their opposition to the act. Tumblr administrators galvanized their members into making 87,834 calls to their congressional representatives about the act.
SOPA is supported by organizations functioning entirely on the idea of copyright such as the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, the latter of which is responsible for many lawsuits against students who willfully and illegally download content using university networks.
The act has a very real chance of passing given that the aforementioned organizations are heavily invested in protecting copyright are making every effort to lobby Congress. Critics suspect, should SOPA pass, the Internet, as we know it today, might never be the same.
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