SOPA: Cheat Sheet

Not soap - something that could undermine the fundamental interconnectedness of the internet...

Not soap - something that could undermine the fundamental interconnectedness of the internet...

SOPA? Oh joy - another four-letter tech acronym to add to the teetering pile...
Eight letters actually: there's also PIPA.

They sound like twins. So what are SOPA and PIPA?
SOPA and PIPA are two very similar anti-piracy bills, going through the US House of Representatives and the US Senate respectively. SOPA stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act and PIPA for the PROTECT IP Act - which itself stands for the epic Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property.

Catchy.
Right. SOPA and PIPA might sounds as inoffensive as bars of soap but don't be fooled: they are the subject of massive controversy - with scores of internet users and high profile web companies and organisations, including the likes of Google and Wikipedia, campaigning to stop them making it into law.

Internet users and dot-coms aren't the only alarmed entities either - as the following quote illustrates: "These bills, and the enforcement philosophy that underlies them, represent a dramatic retreat from [the US]'s tradition of leadership in supporting the free exchange of information and ideas on the internet," write law professors Mark Lemley, David S Levine, & David G Post, in the Stanford Law Review. So you can add law professors to the pile too.

So what exactly will SOPA and PIPA do if they become law?
If passed the duo would expand the powers of the US Justice Department and copyright holders to seek court orders against sites based outside the US - sites that are merely accused of infringing copyrighted content, and even sites that are only linking to copyright-infringing content. Even a site that contains a reader comment accused of linking to copyright-infringing content could be blacklisted under the proposed legislation.

SOPA would also criminalise unauthorised streaming of copyrighted content - stipulating jail terms of up to five years for people who commit 10 offences within six months.

Wow! Draconian.
Powers set out in the bills include the ability to require ISPs, search engines, payment network providers (credit card companies and so on) and internet advertising services to suspend their services to alleged infringers and to prevent users accessing sites accused of infringing content. In other words: website blocking - or 'web censorship' in the language of anti-SOPA campaigners - and all this without actually having to prove infringement first.

Congressman Lamar Smith: SOPA sponsor

Republican congressman, Lamar Smith, who introduced the SOPA billPhoto: Congressman Lamar Smith's Office

Sounds like a 'sledgehammer to crack a nut' approach.
That's certainly the objection of SOPA/PIPA opponents. They say the language of the bills is so broad that all sorts of websites could be accused of infringing or linking to copyrighted content - from behemoths such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube and Wikipedia, to myriad small sites that are even less likely to have the resources to ensure they are in compliance with such a wide-ranging law.

In any case, compliance with a law that allows a site to be blacklisted based on mere accusation is likely to be a neverending story - since there's no burden of proof on the accuser. "Under SOPA, IP rights holders can proceed vigilante-style against allegedly offending sites, without any court hearing or any judicial intervention or oversight whatsoever," write the law professors in the Stanford Law Review. "For example, SOPA establishes a scheme under which an IP rights holder need only notify credit card companies of the facts supporting its 'good faith belief' that an identified internet site is 'primarily designed or operated for the purpose of' infringement... All of this occurs based upon a notice delivered by the rights holder, which no neutral third party has even looked at, let alone adjudicated on the merits."

From a technical standpoint, the bills also attack the core infrastructure of the internet - by threatening to break its fundamental interconnectedness. "The Internet's Domain Name System (DNS) is a foundational block upon which the internet has been built and upon which its continued functioning critically depends; it is among a handful of protocols upon which almost every other protocol, and countless internet applications, rely to operate smoothly," the professors write. "Court-ordered removal or replacement of entries from the series of interlocking databases that reside in domain name servers and domain name registries around the globe undermines the principle of domain name universality."

Erk! Who's backing these bills then?
As you'd expect, supporters of SOPA and PIPA are the usual suspects: large media, music and tv/film organisations - such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and large media companies: organisations that have long complained their information and entertainment empires are being undermined by parasitic online pirates.

On the political front, there's bi-partisan support: SOPA was introduced by congressman Lamar Smith (pictured above), a Republican, while PIPA was introduced by Democrat senator Patrick Leahy. The bills also have a variety of cosponsors: SOPA originally had 28 cosponsors and PIPA had 40 but as protests against the proposed laws have ramped up, some cosponsors have withdrawn their support.

What sort of anti-SOPA actions are you talking about?
Well, for instance, this week there was a mass online strike, with some 75,000 websites - including online behemoths such as Google and Wikipedia - turning off or blacking out/censoring their own content in a bid to illustrate how the proposed bills could damage online freedom of expression if passed.

Impressive. Are the protests working?
They are certainly grabbing a lot of attention. Even congressman Smith - Mr Sopa himself - seems to be feeling the heat. Last week he posted a notice on his website announcing plans to remove a provision in the bill requiring ISPs to block access to certain foreign websites.

"After consultation with industry groups across the country, I feel we should remove Domain Name System blocking from the Stop Online Piracy Act so that the Committee can further examine the issues surrounding this provision. We will continue to look for ways to ensure that foreign websites cannot sell and distribute illegal content to US consumers," he said in a statement.

Wikipedia's 'Stop SOPA' protest blackout page

Wikipedia's 'Stop SOPA' protest blackout pageImage: Wikipedia

Add to that, the White House also issued its own statement - responding to anti-SOPA petitions. "While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet," said Victoria Espinel, intellectual property enforcement coordinator at Office of Management and Budget, Aneesh Chopra, US chief technology officer, and Howard Schmidt, special assistant to the president and cybersecurity coordinator for National Security Staff in a statement.

"Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small," the statement added - giving a pretty clear signal that the current versions of SOPA and PIPA at least aren't getting the backing of US President Barack Obama.

Another big backer of SOPA/PIPA - media mogul Rupert Murdoch - tweeted his anger at the White House's statement via his @rupertmurdoch Twitter account, accusing President Obama of being swayed by Silicon Valley lobbyists. "Piracy leader is Google who streams movies free, sells adv[er]ts around them. No wonder pouring millions into lobbying," Murdoch added in a second, rather ironic tweet - ironic since the existence of SOPA and PIPA is itself down to lobbying by big media interests seeking to ensure their own business interests are protected.

So have SOPA/PIPA been defeated then?
I wouldn't go that far. It seems that SOPA has stalled - for now, at any rate. The stop SOPA/PIPA camp does appear to be winning hearts and minds.

Of course the bills might be amended to try and win broader support. But any watered down bills that have been forced to drop controversial measures such as DNS blocking won't be the SOPA/PIPA that caused the uproar in the first place.

Hang on - I think I'm getting déjà-vu. Isn't this law-to-combat-piracy stuff all a bit familiar?
You're probably thinking of the Digital Economy Bill (now Act) - another piece of contentious anti-piracy legislation that was railroaded through the UK's parliament in the dying days of the last government.

DEAct gives telecoms regulator Ofcom powers to direct UK ISPs to limit the internet speeds of web users suspected of downloading or sharing copyright-infringing content - or even to disconnect their internet connections altogether. The process of warning copyright infringers that they are infringing copyright - by sending out letters - and perhaps even kicking them off the internet altogether is not due to kick in until 2013.

There's also the whole net neutrality debate - which doesn't involve piracy but does involve big corporate interests seeking to cuff the free flow of information across the internet in order to generate money for themselves.

It's the familiar story of big corporate interests vs the freedom of the internet isn't it?
You could certainly say that, yes.

Update: As of today (Friday 20 January), PIPA has been officially put on hold. A vote on PIPA was due to take place in the Senate next Tuesday but has been postponed until a "compromise" can be reached, according to a statement put out by Senate majority leader Harry M Reid. "In light of recent events, I have decided to postpone Tuesday's vote on the PROTECT IP Act," he said in the statement. "There is no reason that the legitimate issues raised by many about this bill cannot be resolved."

Smith also today put out a statement announcing that the House Judiciary Committee "will postpone consideration of the legislation until there is wider agreement on a solution". "It is clear that we need to revisit the approach on how best to address the problem of foreign thieves that steal and sell American inventions and products," he added.

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