There’s been lots of talk in tech circles about SOPA and PIPA the last few weeks and I wanted to write a post for the non techie to try to explain what’s going on. For more details read Fred Wilson’s overview and the SOPA Wikipedia entry. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) are bills designed to stop people from illegally downloading music, movies, books, software and other intellectual property. The stated goal is to eliminate access to websites like The Pirate Bay, which allows people to illegally download billions of dollars of protected IP for free. Sounds reasonable right? Unfortunately, this vague bill gives the entertainment industry the power to censor the internet. Here’s how it works.
If an IP holder, for example Warner Brothers, believes that a website is harming their rights, it can demand that search engines block the “offending” website in search results, payment processors stop processing credit card transactions and advertising networks stop displaying advertising and sending payments. They can even demand that the domain name be blocked in the United States. All for one link to potentially protected IP content. If these companies comply, they are immune from any damages relating to copyright infringement.
“Offending” websites have five days to respond. This means that if Facebook has one link to an illegal download of a Warner Brothers movie, Warner Brothers can demand that search engines, payment processors and ad networks stop doing business with the ENTIRE company.
Facebook is now a huge company and would fight back, but imagine Zuckerburg getting a letter from Warner Brothers in 2003. He’d have to buckle to Warner Brothers’ demands immedately because he didn’t have the resources to fight: he was building Facebook into a billion dollar business that now employs over 3000 people. SOPA will kill innovation and job creation.
SOPA and PIPA replace DMCA, or Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which passed in 1998. It was a compromise between the content industry and the technology industry that has worked really well. It provides four safe harbors, immunity, for companies that follow the rules: if they are notified of offending content, they can ban the user who is posting it and remove the links. Now websites are liable for the content their users post. This is a horrible idea. DMCA has worked really well for the past 14 years, but the music and movie industry wants more power.
They’ve used their lobbyists to write a broad, vague bill that eliminates these safe harbors and concentrates power with large companies at the expense of free speech and startups. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, Reddit, Blogger, Google and many others are at risk. Individuals who download content or stream videos face criminal prosecution. Some examples that will be illegal under SOPA: posting a remixed song to soundcloud, posting a video with copyrighted music in the background, covering a copyrighted song and posted it to Facebook. It’s crazy, someone who illegally downloads a Michael Jackson video could face a longer prison term than the doctor who killed him. There’s even talk that Justin Bieber’s original cover songs on YouTube could have been censored.
The consequences of these bills are huge. It has the potential to end the internet as we know it. It will kill startups. It will unfairly punish individuals and artists using copyrighted material in remixes, videos and art. It will allow large companies to block access to websites they find objectionable without a full court order and a transparent appeals process. If a dictatorship was proposing a similar law, the US would be running to condem it. This law uses similar techniques to China’s great firewall to get what it wants. It’s not democratic, its probably unconstitutional and will harm one of the last job creating industries in the United States. SOPA signals the end of the Internet as we know it.
In the last week, Congress has stopped trying to ram these bills through, mostly because of outcry on the internet. You can do your part. Share posts like this, look at companies that are supporting SOPA and think about contacting your representative.
For more information check out Hollywood Finally Gets A Chance to Break the Internet and Stop America Censorship. They both make a better case against SOPA than I do.