SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, is another one of those bills that sounds like it's going to do something mildly positive but, in reality, has serious potential to negatively change the internet as we know it. It puts power in the hands of the entertainment industry to censor sites that allegedly "engage in, enable or facilitate" copyright infringement. This language vague enough to encompass sites you use every day, like Twitter and Facebook, making SOPA a serious problem.
Gizmodo AU editor's note: We're not yet sure how this bill will affect us in Australia if it passes, but it's an interesting explainer that's worth a read.
How Does SOPA Work, and Why Should I Care?
The idea behind SOPA sounds reasonable. It came about in order to try to snuff out piracy online, as the entertainment industry is obviously not excited about the many people downloading their product without their permission. The issue is, however, that it doesn't really matter whether you're in support of piracy, against it, or just don't care. SOPA makes it possible for companies to block the domain names of websites that are simple capable of, or seem to encourage copyright infringement.
This means that if Gizmodo happened to have an article or two that could be interpreted as piracy-friendly, our domain could be blocked so it's inaccessible by visiting gizmodo.com. What the bill can't do is block numeric IP addresses, so you could still access Gizmodo, or any other site that could be censored, if you knew that address. This is important because it means this bill can't do much to stop downloaders of pirated content. If a domain name is blocked, everything will still work via the numeric IP address. Basically, the bill will be no good at stopping piracy -- what it was apparently designed to do -- but excellent at censoring any website capable of providing its users with the means of promoting pirated content or allowing the process. This includes sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr and many more. If it's possible to post pirated content on the site, or information that could further online piracy, a claim can be brought against it. This can be something as minor as you posting a copyrighted image to your Facebook page, or piracy-friendly information in the comments of a post such as this one. The vague, sweeping language in this bill is what makes it so troubling.
In the event of SOPA-based censorship, any site can submit an appeal so long as they do so within five days. This isn't a lot of time to handle a legal matter, and if you've ever dealt with a copyright infringement takedown notice you know how ineffective an appeal can be. When a threat of legal action is posed, a company is generally going to prefer to err on the side of caution and remove infringing content indefinitely. It's far cheaper to run the risk of removing perfectly legal content than to battle the issue in court. If your web host censors your site because of a SOPA-based claim, you can expect the same sorts of problems.
If you want to learn more about how SOPA works, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) posted a great overview. You can also view the exact contents of SOPA. For a quick overview, be sure to watch the video at the top of this post.
SOPA is on the fast track, so if you want to fight it you need to do so today. We do, however, recommend you get to know the bill so you you can make an informed decision regarding how you feel about it.