What Is SOPA? Giz Explains

If you hadn't heard of SOPA before, you probably have by now: Some of the internet's most influential sites -- Reddit and Wikipedia among them -- are going dark to protest the much-maligned anti-piracy bill. But other than being a very bad thing, what is SOPA? And what will it mean for you if it passes?

SOPA is an anti-piracy bill working its way through Congress...

House Judiciary Committee Chair and Texas Republican Lamar Smith, along with 12 co-sponsors, introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act on October 26 of last year. Debate on H.R. 3261, as it's formally known, has consisted of one hearing on November 16 and a "mark-up period" on December 15, which was designed to make the bill more agreeable to both parties. Its counterpart in the Senate is the Protect IP Act (S. 968). Also known by it's cuter-but-still-deadly name: PIPA. Hearings for both are on hold for now, but the SOPA discussions will resume in February of this year.

...that would grant content creators extraordinary power over the internet...

The beating heart of SOPA is the ability of intellectual property owners (read: movie studios and record labels) to effectively pull the plug on foreign sites against whom they have a copyright claim. If Warner Bros, for example, says that a site in Italy is torrenting a copy of The Dark Knight, the studio could demand that Google remove that site from its search results, that PayPal no longer accept payments to or from that site, that ad services pull all ads and finances from it, and -- most dangerously -- that the site's ISP prevent people from even going there.

...which would go almost comedically unchecked...

Perhaps the most galling thing about SOPA is that it lets IP owners take these actions without a single court appearance or judicial sign-off. All it takes is a single letter claiming a "good faith belief" that its target site has infringed on its content. Once Google or PayPal or whoever receives the quarantine notice, they have five days to either abide or to challenge the claim in court.

The language in SOPA implies that it's aimed squarely at foreign offenders; that's why it focuses on cutting off sources of funding and traffic (generally US-based) rather than directly attacking a targeted site (which is outside of US legal jurisdiction) directly. But that's just part of it.

...to the point of potentially creating an "Internet Blacklist"...

Here's the other thing: Payment processors or content providers like Visa or YouTube don't even need a letter to shut off a site's resources. The bill's "vigilante" provision gives broad immunity to any provider who proactively shutters sites it considers to be infringers. Which means the MPAA just needs to publicise one list of infringing sites to get those sites blacklisted from the internet.

Potential for abuse is rampant. As Public Knowledge points out, Google could easily take it upon itself to delist every viral video site on the internet with a "good faith belief" that they're hosting copyrighted material. Leaving YouTube as the only major video portal. Comcast (an ISP) owns NBC (a content provider). Think they might have an interest in shuttering some rival domains? Under SOPA, they can do it without even asking for permission.

...while exacting a huge cost from nearly every site you use daily...

SOPA also includes an "anti-circumvention" clause, which holds that telling people how to work around SOPA is nearly as bad as violating its main provisions. In other words: if your status update links to The Pirate Bay, Facebook would be legally obligated to remove it. Ditto tweets, YouTube videos, Tumblr or WordPress posts, or sites indexed by Google. And if Google, Twitter, Wordpress, Facebook and so on let it stand? They face a government "enjoinment". They could and would be shut down.

The resources it would take to self-police are monumental for established companies and unattainable for start-ups. SOPA would censor every online social outlet you have and prevent new ones from emerging.

...and potentially disappearing your entire digital life...

The party line on SOPA is that it only affects seedy off-shore torrent sites. That's false. As the big legal brains at Bricoleur point out, the potential collateral damage is huge. And it's you. Because while Facebook and Twitter have the financial wherewithal to stave off anti-circumvention shut down notices, the smaller sites you use to store your photos, your videos and your thoughts may not. If the government decides any part of that site infringes on copyright and proves it in court? Poof. Your digital life is gone, and you can't get it back.

...while still managing to be both unnecessary and ineffective...

What's saddest about SOPA is that it's pointless on two fronts. In the US, the MPAA and RIAA already have the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to request that infringing material be taken down. We've all seen enough "video removed" messages to know that it works just fine.

As for the foreign operators, you might as well be throwing darts at a tse-tse fly. The poster child of overseas torrenting, Pirate Bay, has made it perfectly clear that they're not frightened in the least. And why should they be? Its proprietors have successfully evaded any technological attempt to shut them down so far. Its advertising partners aren't US-based, so they can't be choked out. But more important than Pirate Bay itself is the idea of Pirate Bay and the hundreds or thousands of sites like it, as populous and resilient as mushrooms in a marsh. Forget the question of should SOPA succeed. It's incredibly unlikely that it could. At least at its stated goals.

...but stands a shockingly good chance of passing...

SOPA is, objectively, an unfeasible trainwreck of a bill, one that wilfully misunderstands the nature of the internet and portends huge financial and cultural losses. The White House has come out strongly against it. As have hundreds of venture capitalists and dozens of the men and women who helped build the internet. In spite of all this, it remains popular in the House of Representatives.

That mark-up period on December 15, the one that was supposed to transform the bill into something more manageable? Useless. Twenty sanity-fuelled amendments were flat-out rejected. And while the bill's most controversial provision -- mandatory DNS filtering -- was thankfully taken off the table recently, in practice internet providers would almost certainly still use DNS as a tool to shut an accused site down.

...unless we do something about it.

The momentum behind the anti-SOPA movement has been slow to build, but we're finally at a saturation point. Wikipedia, BoingBoing, WordPress, TwitPic: they'll all be dark on January 18. An anti-SOPA rally has been planned for tomorrow afternoon in New York. The list of companies supporting SOPA is long but shrinking, thanks in no small part to the emails and phone calls they've received in the last few months.

So keep calling. Keep emailing. Most of all, keep making it known that the internet was built on the same principles of freedom that this country was. It should be afforded to the same rights.



    Hasnt congress said they will not pass this?

      No. The hearing WAS set for later this month, but they've shelved it (Never said they weren't voting on it) till February.

    Isn't this just a case of some hundred men and women (more or less) who don't use computers or the Internet trying to pass a bill about something that they have no understanding about what so ever?

    What is that called again???

      ..the NBN?

        This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

        The NBN shows that the government DOES care. Spending the money now on a proper system is much more logical then the oppositions' stop gap with cruddy wireless and slow copper based ADSL2+ rollout.

    lol, pipa as one of the tags. I'm sure a lot of men will be confused with that one.

    trying to not to imagine what my life would be without pirate bay...

      expensive, you would be bored, you would have to wait about 6-8 months from when the movie comes out on dvd in america for it to go into cinemas in australia, terrible terrible thing sopa is

      If you live in the USA then Yes if this bill gets passed then no more Piratebay for you!..

      If you live outside the USA, China, North Korea - Then you will be Okay as thepiratebay servers are in Sweden - No bloddy wonder the USA Economy is Pretty stuffed up trying to pass or pass a bill that makes the USA equell if not worse then North Korea, or China by Cesoring the Internet
      Glad i live in Australia.....

      But what is this the USA claiming that they own the Interent!.. What crap, we the people own the Interent not the Govts nor any one else, I pay my Interent bill, i buy the GB's per month that can use - So as they say this will not stop anything at all, - In short terms the saying goes were there is a will there is a way!.. (ie).. like a IP Spoofing program that hides your IP address if within the USA, and change it to another country so it gets Routed via a different country, then the USA Interent Censoring becomes useless - or as they say the govts think of something we the people think of something better, the govts become smart - we the people become smarter and the cycle goes on, and on NO ONE OWN THE INTERNET, LET ALONE THE USA TRYING TO SAY OR CLAIM RIGHTS TO COPYRIGHTS OF IT AND EVERYTHING ON IT (Yeah there US Servers Maybe)... Keep Dreaming Mr, and Mrs Congressman/woman....

    I really don't see any problem with any part of this. All it is doing is giving IP owners (the good guys) the same powers that the thieves (bad guys) have now. I'd much rather see thieves screwed over than the people who make great movies, brilliant TV and nourish a diverse musical ecosystem. You people are only complaining because it will force you to pay for the things you want.

      Seriously? I mean have you read the article?
      Ok so you would also be perfectly fine with police being able to go up to someone and say "I think your breaking the law. I have no proof. But you look funny. You look like one of those ethnic types who might break the law. Because of that I am going to arrest you and throw you in jail until you can prove that you are not breaking the law. Never mind that this might cost you your job, wreck your family and cause you untold grief. Your guilty until your proven innocent!"
      ANYONE that thinks this is a good idea really needs to rethink what their values are and the kind of world that they want to live in.


        The law is there for a reason. You accuse somebody of doing something then run through the courts and determine if it's valid or not. Being able to take something down just because you THINK they're doing something wrong is getting VERY close to your stereotypical police state and not a free society at all. If you don't think this will be abused by corporations and governments (think wikileaks), you're deluding yourself.

          Sam, you say "the law is there for a reason" but you only want to apply it in one direction. Anyone torrenting other people's music is stealing. Why should they go unpunished?

            People stealing shouldn't go unpunished, but this approach is completely off the radar and like everything else they have tried, will not work because people are always looking for a new way to get around restrictions.

            Just because people are stealing doesn't make this right. How many innocent people were targeted when the RIAA was suing everyone? How many innocent people will suffer if this passes. Only the symptom (piracy) is being addressed here, the disease (lack of efficient and regulated digital distribution) is still the problem. As long as the media content is not available for easy and reasonably priced purchasing, internet users will still pirate on a large scale.
            My family recently had a reunion and it was my responsibility to provide the music. I went clean and legit years ago and did not have a fraction of the music library I once had. So..I tried to purchase some new music online. I don't like iTunes, so I was trying to find an alternative. Guess what I found out? There are not many other decent online mp3 stores besides iTunes. In fact it was so much trouble and hassle, what took me half an hour to do, I could have done in less than five minutes by stealing music. Yes it is easier to steal music than to buy it. That is a MAJOR problem. The internet is all about convenience. Why would anyone pay to go through more trouble and waste more time?

        Sorry mate, but thats a big stretch ... but this does lay the ground work..

        Firstly I will say that this law will have almost no effect on me as I live in Australia, but it may create a precedent for similar laws to be passed in other parts of the world.

        Firstly the big problem is that the main sites such as pirate bay are almost un touchable, no one can shut them down, and many have tried. that is the biggest public site, but most of the really pirating is done via private, member only sites that only a few people know about.

        What would instead happen is that if someone made a site that competed with someone such as google or Facebook or Ebay but was just a start up company, they use the ""good faith"" and shut them down. and then it will soon turn into a gov't controlled Internet system like china.

        Yeah, I'm fine with all that. The thieves do worse and show even less regard for their victims. None of the endangered sites mentioned are of any interest to me, just as the fact that countless thousands of thieves have ruined or record label and wrecked our musical career is of no consequence to you. I assume when you wrote "Never mind that this might cost you your job, wreck your family and cause you untold grief " that it occurred to you that the way things are now could be doing exactly that to many hard-working, creative sheeple? I actually think it would be great to see the shoe on the other foot for a change. Actions have consequences.

        I want to live in a world where I have control over the things I own, not a world where some spotty kid can put my life's work up for torrenting and do me out of who knows how many tens of thousands of dollars I may have been due in royalties, just because he wants to. I want to live in a world where actions have consequences.

          I agree with the sentiment Motormouth. I also would like to control my intellectual property and how it is used, sold, or distributed etc. However, thats only the premise which SOPA is based. The actual law allows for way too much power given to the owner of the IP.

          Usually when you make some kind of IP copyright claim you need to demonstrate proof of ownership, and proof of copyright. The law that SOPA is providing says you don't need to show proof at all. You just have to do as I tell you to do because I think there is a copyright infringement. If you don't want to do as I ask then we have to go to court and fight about it.

          So the issue here is that once this power is provided, there is nothing stopping anyone from asking to shut down your site because of a belief!

          The other problem with this law is that it isnt really enforceable in any practical sense. How do you make sure that people are following the law? How does the small business fight against the large corporate about a claim that may or may not be justified.

          Whats wrong with copyright law as it stands? If you distribute something that is mine, and make money from it, then you are oblidged to give me that money. I just have to follow up on it.

          I reckon that most piracy would not exist if content was cheaper in the first place. Think about IKEA. They make less then 5% margin on their products. Its a volume business. No-one copies their stuff because its cheap enough to buy in the first place. If you price it right and its desireable people will buy it and wont bother copying.

          The fact is the people are always circumventing laws to buy what they want anyway. All these similar laws are a false protection. Think about region controls on your DVD. Grey market imports. Online shopping. It has not stopped distribution of region 1 DVDs in region 4.

          The government should keep their eye on the business at hand and keep the country running. Leave the internet alone, its really not a function of government. There are bigger problems to solve.

            You said "I want to live in a world where I have control over the things I own" according to SOPA and PIPA you won't have control over these things. The government would. All it would take is one person to say they ain't yours and it would be removed without you so much as getting a chance to prove them wrong

      Hi Giz
      We think you have a photo of Mr Burns on your site and as the copyright holder I'm going to shut your site down as you may be distributing more Simpsons material. On your site as you offer videos and an RSS feed for distributing material plus we have seen that you talk about pirate bay witch you may be able to download The Simpsons (tm) from.
      Until the court date thank you for understanding.
      FOX Network.

      You really need to read this a little more closely.

      But to save you time: any "IP owner" can send a letter of complaint to any site, claiming infringement, weather there is any infringement or not, weather it was one tiny rogue user in millions that was responsible.
      Then the site either has to do what the complainer asks or fight it in court, incurring expenses.
      If they don't then they face huge sanctions and the possibility of being wiped from existence on the net.

      This is literally what this idiot legislation involves. If you've ever administered a site and had to deal with thousands of creative users you'd know how impossible this sort proposition is.
      In the end, only the super rich sites and super rich IP holders win here.

        whether**** FFS

      Never read anything so ignorant and offensive on this site till your post. Congrats, Motormouth.

      This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted

    Personally I think we need better controls but we also need easier and more affordable ways to access shows that free to air will never ever show in Australia. And I don't want Foxtel for $60 per month either .

      Yep, it's crazy, you still can't get some shows such as Dollhouse legally in Australia. That show has been finished for a couple of years now... I WANT to give you my money but you won't let me!

    There has been enough pressure brought to bare that Obama is against it in it's current form, so it seems to me that keeping the pressure on is paramount. We really do need to openly support those who are savvy enough to bring that kind of pressure to the hierarchy!

    Reminds me of the drug war.

    If this passes, it will be worse than China's Great Firewall.. because it won't be the government in control, it will be greedy, megalomaniacal coporations.

    I think that picture with Mr Burns is the perfect image for any and every time SOPA is mentioned

    One thing I am still not clear on is what kind of flow-on effects these blocks will cause for traffic being routed through America? Do a trace route to your favourite non-USA website and you'll find that in a lot of cases the traffic gets routed via the USA. If the site is blocked in the USA, does that effect traffic passing through the USA..? And what about USA-based sites that get blocked? What about sites that have affilliations with blocked sites?

    So many things I don't understand about the global consequences of this bill.

    I'll start by saying that the implementation of the Bill seems... questionable.
    But the idea of the Bill has merrit.
    We have all become accustomed to being able to take what we want from the internet - regardless of the source material. Games, music, movies, programs - all things people have invested in to make, there for the taking for free.
    But why?
    Taking the point Labrys is trying to make (the alarmist view), he is saying basically that "they" can ruin your life because they "think" you've commited a crime. Well the flip-side is slavery. Musicians, movie-makers, programmers all working to put up free items to be downloaded and enjoyed for no compensation.
    The positive of the Bill is that it is generating discussions around the issues. I doubt this Bill will serve any other purpose than that. But the big players need to start talking about reform - this "Free Internet" thing needs to change.
    To what? Discussions like these will find out.

      I agree with you...mostly. I don't feel the idea of these bills have any merit, but I do agree with your opinion. The bills are the MPAA and RIAA again trying to control media distribution so that they profit. For years now, instead of evolving and finding new ways to make content available for purchase, they have been fighting for control to keep media distribution setup up in its archaic form--the way they want it. They have had plenty of opportunities to embrace the way the internet has grown, but instead they sue and bully innocent people. Have they yet to gain any ground....no. So what do they do? The try to make a new law which gives them legal power to shutdown whoever they want. I think the time for discussions has passed. THEY are the ones that need to change. THEY are the ones who have failed to provide us with means to purchase the media we actually want to. New musicians have actually been turning to Pirate Bay to introduce their music and create a fan base.

      On the flip side as you and Labrys have pointed out, these bills in their current form are extremely dangerous and have the potential to ruin the internet for media content AND everything else.

    PirateBay is Swedish so we're safe with that I suppose for a while. However SOPA will ruin the internet freedom of America in one swipe.

    See, now I have this fantasy.
    American politicians, insistent on bending over for whoever pays them the most, continually attempt to legislate the internet for countries that aren't theirs. Eventually enough of it becomes the law of the (American) land. They begin interfering with other countries' citizens and businesses at the same time as they restrict their own citizens freedoms yet again (How the Land of the Free ever stood for Free Speech Zones I'll never know.). At some point they'll decide to to have their own internet, with no corrupting influences from the outside world, controlled by those who properly understand the way things should be done (Halal Intranet of Iran, anyone?), those who's moral integrity will allow them to face the godlessness and rampant criminality (Big Business and Government. Private citizens don't have the fortitude.).
    The rest of the world, after a surprisingly short period of restructuring, relishes their internet freedom without having to worry about American politicians dictating their version of right and wrong to cultures they don't respect and barely understand.

    One of my biggest problems with legislation like SOPA, is that it perverts the concept of copyright twice over. Copyright isn't - and was never meant to be - a guarantee for an artist to make money from their work. It was created to stop someone else from taking that work and making money from it ahead of its creator. It is not an artist's right to make money from their creations, but it is their right to receive any money that is made.

    Publishers - the archetypal middlemen - have developed methods for extracting these rights from artists, in return for a percentage of what profits may come from them. That percentage is usually quite low, and with various deductions, a pittance against the revenue generated.

    When people say that this kind of legislation "protects artists", there are 2 problems: it doesn't, and it shouldn't. It protects publishers, who make some recompense to artists in return for the protection of their obscene profits.

    While I don't condone piracy, it needs to be recognised that in several thousand years of artistic pursuits, the last 50 are an aberration, not the norm, created by a small group of cashed up parasites. The Internet disrupts this aberration. It allows more opportunity for free and open artistic expression, at the cost of the methods publishers use to make money. It's not a right. It's not even a privelidge. It's an addictive illness, and we need to break the habit, not look to prolong it.

      Your comment is so true Sparhawko! ><

    Conroy's internet filter seems pretty tame next to this


    That is exactly right. If the "industry" spent half as much time improving their business model and delivery as they do trying to protect their crumbling 100 year old version, they'd have alot more money and a lot more respect.

    But instead, because they're trying to grimly hang on the duopoly they had in the 20th century, where they controlled everything, told us what to like, and then charged an arm and a leg for it, for which the 'chosen' artist got a fraction, and all the non-chosen got nothing and were shut out of anyone ever hearing their produce outside of a live performance because the means of production and distribution were just not available to them, unless some 'taste-maker' decided he might be able to rip them off.

    Ask any artist if the internet has been good for their career, piracy and all, and 99.99999999995% will say it's been brilliant.

    The fuckers pushing for this bill, and the are fuckers, are just mad that something is hindering them ripping artists off and they're prepared to destroy the internet to stop it, because life for them was better before the internet.

    With respect I think we (myself included at times) are complete hypocrites. The people for the bill are said to be ignorant, the people against the bill are only against it cause they have been told to be. The facts are skewed by the very platforms that are against them, the policy makers probably are not the best qualified ppl to make such legislative changes. The fact is most of you have not looked into the facts, I have been researching for the last 2 hours and I am still confused and have not yet formed an opinion. Firstly I think trying to protect copyright is a good thing. Think about what your favourite bands opinion is before jumping in bed with Facebook. This is a very serious issue and I am appalled by the lack of FACTS. Rant over. )

    I have no problem with artists and companies getting paid for their IP - I pay for most of my content - and am happy to do so. However, there are times when I *can't* pay for it.
    For example, I have often tried to buy an e-book from sites such as Amazon, to find at the end of the process that the book is 'not available to people in your country' (Australia). I can buy a hard copy - but not an e-copy - as the publishers and laws have not kept up with the technology.
    When that is the case, I have absolutely no problem with downloading a torrent. This law punishes people who are genuinely trying to do the right thing, and once again, people outside the US will also lose out.

    Hands up if you have ever downloaded a movie 4 free ^(..)^ I know I have....

    As many have already said, including those that originally backed the bill, the idea is good, just that the implementation is half baked.. it's a knee-jerk reaction (when you take into account the time it takes for a bill to get moving and get to senate, it's clear this one has been fast). Just like our own internet filtering project, there is merits to it that are clear to see by everyone. It's just the silly, open-ended sub-clauses that people put in there that give the bill such broad sweeping power that it effectively cripples the thing they are trying to control. Too much control is a bad thing.. it's the same in network and PC security.. if you only took the security perspective in mind, you'd end up with a computer or network system that was impenetrable but completely unusable. :) You need to take the human/user perspective into account to and find a good balance.

    PIPA and SOPA are unbalanced and that is the problem.

    Why does the US government, get ruin the rest of the world?

    Facebook Washington DC
    We are relieved that Congress has recognized the serious damage the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) could cause to the Internet and are pleased that congressional leaders have decided not to move forward on these bills. We want to thank the millions of Facebook users who shared their views with us, with members of Congress, and with their friends and families on this important issue, and who changed the direction of this harmful legislation. We appreciate that lawmakers have listened to our community's concerns, and we stand ready to work with them on solutions to piracy and copyright infringement that will not chill free expression or threaten the economic growth and innovation the Internet provides. You can read more about Facebook's view on the anti-piracy bills here:

    Facebook Washington DC | Anti-Piracy Bills

    Now goto Facebook, and Check up Mark Zuckerberg full Comment, Feed!...

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