The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a bill being considered by the US House or Representatives that was introduced on October 26, 2011 by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). The Senate has their own version of the bill, called the “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act”, aka the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), introduced on May 12, 2011 by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

The goal of these bills is to protect intellectual property markets and the jobs and revenues in these industries.  Proponents of the bills say they are necessary to enforce copyright laws in the digital age, especially when it comes to foreign websites. Although very similar, there are slight differences between the two bills, mainly just in the specific wording.

One provision that SOPA has that PIPA doesn’t is the requirement of search engines to remove “foreign infringing sites” from their indexes. PIPA, on the other hand, requires greater court intervention against accused websites. This makes SOPA slightly more controversial, as it is seen by some as outright censorship, but critics have other problems with both bills.

Both proposed bills would force US based payment services, such as PayPal, to refrain from doing business with foreign sites that are thought to be “dedicated to infringing activities.” This is similar to what happened with the whistle-blowing website, WikiLeaks, when PayPal cut their access for donations.

Both bills also include what is called anti-circumvention provisions, which would make it illegal to inform people on how to access blocked sites. This can be interpreted to require websites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit , whose content comes from the users, to make sure that such information is not posted on their sites, or they could face legal action. This would be nearly impossible for such websites to enforce.

Another provision turns internet service providers into vigilantes, allowing them to block access to websites if the have “credible evidence” that they are distributing copyrighted material. They also give immunity to these providers if they are found to have wrongfully taken action against a website. The potential for abuse and censorship here is overwhelming.

A provision that sponsors of both bills have agreed to drop, due to outcry from many technical experts, allows for service providers to use a technique known as DNS (domain name system) blocking. DNS is, basically, the phone book that attaches a domain name with it’s IP address. Critics say DNS blocking would undermine the infrastructure of the internet.

Because it deals with the world wide web, and it extends the powers of enforcement to go after foreign websites, this issue is not only relevant to the US, but to people all over the world.

An alternative to these bill has been offered that still addresses the issue of intellectual property rights without a lot of the provisions that critics find offensive. The “Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade” or OPEN Act, has been introduced to both the House, and the Senate. This would expand on a the Tariff Act of 1930, which allows the International Trade Commission (ITC) to take action against the distribution of physical good violating intellectual property laws, to include “unfair digital imports or unfair imports that are digitally-facilitated by foreign rogue websites”. Supporters of SOPA and PIPA say this legislation would be ineffective, and so far, it hasn’t gained much support in either the house or the Senate.

At the moment, it doesn’t seem that enough consensus will be reached in the House to pass SOPA any time soon. PIPA, however,  seems much more likely to go forward, and is expected to go to a vote in the Senate on January 24.

The White House has issued at statement on this matter saying that it “will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet,” suggesting that Obama would veto any such bill if it were to pass. However, Obama has also threatened that he would veto the “National Defense Authorization Act” (NDAA) that he signed on New Year’s Eve. Clearly, any statement from the White House cannot be taken seriously.

An online blackout is planned for Wednesday, January 18 in protest against these bills. Sites taking part in the blackout – including Wikipedia, Reddit, Boing Boing, Destructoid, I Heart Chaos, all sites under the Cheezburger Network and others – will display a page warning people of the potential consequences of these bills passing. Also, avaaz.org has a petition, with over 1.5 million signatures (and counting), that you can sign to let members of Congress know about your concerns over SOPA.

SOPA and PIPA have the potential to change the internet as we know it. The unclear wording allows for abuse which could censorship of any website that is seen as a threat. This is not to mention the enormous cost and effort it would require to enforce such legislation. If you value a free and open internet, then please take action against these misguided bills.

UPDATE: Barack Obama refuses to support SOPA, although, Congress will revisit the bill next month. PIPA is still expected to go to a vote on January 24.

Also, there is evidence that the main supporters of the bill, are some of the same people who created, distributed and promoted much of the pirating technology in the first place. They owned the copyrights, made it easy for people to share files, and now support legislation which would allow them to make millions off copyright infringement lawsuits. This video by Micheal Mozart explains:

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