A Brief Guide to SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act


Written by Jack Sharp
18 Wednesday 18th January 2012

Several other popular websites have currently or are also scheduled to black out their pages, including Reddit, Destructoid, Boing Boing, I Heart Chaos, TwitPic, the entire Cheezburger Network (which includes Failblog, Know Your Meme, The Daily What, etc.) and WordPress.

Domain hosting website GoDaddy.com, faced with pressure from their customer base, reversed their decision to protest the bill after losing customers.

So why are these websites so opposed to this legislation? And how exactly would these bills change things?

The Legislation

The PROTECT IP Act would give the power to censor websites to the entertainment industry. Private organisations want to block sites where people either download films, TV programmes and music, most of which are are outside US jurisdiction. As a workaround, organisations would have to block access to infringing domain names. Crucially, the legislation would also provide these organisations with the power to sue US-based search engines, forums and even blogs if they contain links to copyright infringing content.

Critics of the PROTECT IP act argue that this wouldn’t work, and most importantly, wouldn’t stop people from downloading copyrighted content illegally. Browsers would likely still be able to illegally view copyrighted material via a slightly fiddly workaround (typing in a site’s IP address instead of URL). Critics also suggest that it would wipe out new social media websites and search engines, since links to content appear so rapidly that it would be near impossible to closely monitor. Sites like Reddit, for example, that are entirely based in a user-generated content format could quite possibly be ousted under the legislation.

Those opposed to PROTECT IP also argue that by tampering with the internet’s registry domain names, the bill would actually make the internet less secure.

SOPA, while certainly similar to the PROTECT IP Act, has several major destinations: firstly, SOPA has the power to require search engines to remove “foreign infringing site” from their indexes, and contains the provision to penalises copyright owners who knowingly misrepresent the alleged infringement of a website; the PROTECT IP Act doesn't, meaning that if a website is taken to court and accused of piracy, the owners won't receive compensation for the expensive court bills that they've had to pay.

Another distinction is that SOPA is a House of Representatives bill, whereas the PROTECT IP Act is Senate bill. Because the Senate tends to be more conservative than the house, this could mean that it’s more likely that the PROTECT IP act will pass. It also has more chance of passing simply because it’s gone relatively unnoticed up until now, largely because SOPA has received much of the flack.

Reddit on going dark.

What This Could Mean...

Perhaps the big criticism of both acts is that they contain language that is extremely ambiguous, and could potentially provide organisations with the power to wrongly enforce censorship. The internet has always been a forum for free speech and uncensored information, and to this day remains largely unaffected by organisations, unlike, for example, television. These two acts of legislation threaten to change all that, providing corporations, rather than the users, with the power to control information.

Those who are opposed to the bills claim that these organisations already have the power to fight piracy. They’ve already made considerable changes to YouTube, which a mere three years ago was a radically different site - nowadays clips are taken down simply for copyrighted music playing in the background. They have the power to remove copyrighting infringing content, oust websites that are a haven for piracy, and they can, and have, prosecuted illegal downloaders. Critics believe that this legislation won’t stop piracy, but it will cripple and censor the internet the internet that we know and love today.

Boing Boing on going dark.

Is This Likely to go Through?

Is this likely to go through? Well, President Barack Obama has announced that he would not support SOPA. And in a statement issued by the White House, which acknowledged the growing issue of online, President Obama felt that the bill was not the best means by which to tackle the problem. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the legislation will pass - although it’s certainly a win for critics.

Since then, the octogenarian billionaire and owner of 20th Century Fox Rupert Murdoch has posted several Tweets attacking Obama’s decision not to back the act, describing Google as the “piracy leader”. This merely highlights why SOPA and PROTECT IP Act are potentially so dangerous. Imagine if the internet were controlled my Mr. Murdoch and his associates?

If Wikipedia’s protest today has achieved anything, it’s that it’s drawn attention to these important acts. While this is US legislation, and has remained largely under the international radar until today's internet blackout, it is legislation that could affect all of us. Not only will many UK facing sites be affect (such as Youtube, for example), but it also opens other countries up to the possibility of initiating similar laws.

Futher Reading:

Reddit: Click Here

Eff.org: Click Here

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