Unless they have been under a rock since the New Year began, small and midsize businesses should be acutely aware that there is a move afoot by U.S. lawmakers intended to thwart digital counterfeiting and pirating of intellectual property that lives on the Internet.
Plenty of pixels have been dedicated to the topic here on ZDNet because, frankly, this issue matters greatly to creators of content such as yours truly and pretty much every contributor to this blog network.
Not a day goes by, actually make that an hour, when one of us doesn't come across one of our commentaries or articles that has been 100 percent ripped off of this site and then added to another site -- with the intent of driving search traffic there and not here. It's irksome and financially damaging to writers and really hard to catch all of it, but there are lots of other reasons that SMBs need to pay attention to what is going on that I'll get to in a moment.
For the record, I support the general spirit of the two bills that have been proposed by the two houses of Congress. But as with so many things, the devil is in the details.
Here's the pertinent background. The U.S. House of Representatives has come up with something called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), while the U.S. Senate has created its own take, called the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). The spirit of both is pretty simple -- they purport to thwart illegal copying of movies, music, and other digitally or electronically forms of content. Sounds innocuous, no?
The problem is that the laws put the onus on those that "own" Internet sites to police whether or not intellectual property or copyright laws are being breached. The biggest sticking point is a clause that would require American Internet service providers (ISPs) to shut off access or routing requests to foreign Web site if they are found to be in breach. What's more, there is no burden of proof in the existing bills: a site merely has to be accused of being in breach to be in danger of being blacklisted and shut down. Think of how much damage that could do to a small business or e-commerce site. It should scare you.
On Wednesday, a number of Web sites -- including Wikipedia -- will go dark in protest of this possible government. The details are in this piece by ZDNet commentator Steven Vaughn-Nichols ("Who, besides Wikipedia, is going dark, and why"). I also encourage you to peruse the other commentaries for more background.
The good news is that there has been a dramatic shift as far as political support during just the past week. Over the weekend, for example, the White House said that while online piracy is very serious problem "we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression."
But why should a small business care anyway? Here are three very big reasons:
- If this legislation passes in the current form, your company will be responsible for policing the content on its Web site. Can you say more compliance rules? That means vetting every word, every outgoing Web link or product supplier to make sure they are in compliance with intellectual copyright laws. Since this is something that you might outsource today, you'll need to double down on your management of site content issues.
- Your business might need to take a public position on this legislation. GoDaddy found itself with a big black eye late in 2011 because of its involvement with SOPA. At least 27,000 domains were transferred away from the hosting company. Ouch. Your company may or may not have anything to do with digital content, but the respect that it gives to issues of censorship and protection of copyright will mean a lot in terms of relationships with business partners and customers.
- Legislation that is too broad could damage business relationships with international partners. It is ironic that the White House has been encouraging more small businesses to set up export relationships, enabled by the collaboration tools and marketing capabilities that the Internet provides. But in their current form, SOPA and PIPA might spook legitimate foreign partners.