Congressional hearings began today over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which would allow “prosecutors [to] seek court orders requiring U.S. Internet-service providers, search engines, payment processors and ad networks to block or cease business with websites linked to online piracy,” according to Business Week.
This bill would grant private enterprise unprecedented legal authority to censor a website through a variety of different methods. Not only would an enterprise be able to outright block any website linking to infringing content, it would have power to almost completely remove it from the Internet.
The government will have effectively imposed the will of corporate media interests upon a thriving tech industry by forcing potentially innocent sites to shut down, all without even formally pressing charges.
The bill was first introduced Oct. 26th by House judiciary committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), along with ranking member John Conyers, (D-Mich.), Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Howard Berman (D-Ca.) and was designed to target only foreign “rogue websites” that linked to pirated content and did not comply with U.S. law.
But because of the bill’s vague provisions and language, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr could be caught in the crosshairs and become subject to legal action.
Should SOPA pass, any content holder — from the Motion Picture Association of America all the way down to independent artists — could issue a claim requesting service providers to halt any action supporting a website suspected of hosting protected intellectual property.
The claim could be sent to a number of different providers that affect a site’s business: payment processors such as Mastercard or Paypal, advertisers that represent a large chunk of site revenue, actual Internet service providers such as Time Warner, and the complaining content holder could even request that search engines remove any links to the accused site.
This level of censorship is absolutely unprecedented in the United States, and the fact that any of these measures can be taken without a shred of due process should not be taken lightly.
Once the claim has been issued, providers would have five days to cease business with the accused site or face the possibility of a lawsuit; if they comply, they will receive full immunity from any further prosecution. This measure would propel most providers to concede, and given the short amount of time to respond, it would cut off resources to the entirety of a site instead of just the portion suspected of infringement.
Preventing a site from advertising or processing necessary payments would place it in an economic submission, so firm compliance would practically be mandatory. The government will have effectively imposed the will of corporate media interests upon a thriving tech industry by forcing potentially innocent sites to change or shut down, all without formally pressing charges — let alone gaining a conviction.
The video below, created by the coalition responsible for American Censorship Day, illustrates a brief overview of Protect-IP, a similar bill that was passed in the Senate earlier in the year but ultimately put on hold:
Meanwhile, tech giants including Google, Yahoo, eBay, Facebook and Twitter have joined forces (yes, Google and Facebook are for the moment, ahem, "friends") and written a letter of opposition to key members in the House, stating, “We are concerned that these measures pose a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job-creation, as well as to our Nation’s cybersecurity.”
A primary motivation for lobbyists supporting the bill has been job preservation. They fear piracy is affecting their clients’ ability to provide jobs for content creators. But according to a recent McKinsey & Company study, the Internet and tech industry have been powerful catalysts for job creation, providing 2.6 jobs for every one destroyed. This raises the point that a bill like SOPA could stifle job growth in the tech industry and discourage entrepreneurs from pursuing potential start-ups.
The outcome of these hearings could have implications influencing the direction of the Internet and the way content is distributed digitally across the globe
What it means for the average user
So what exactly does this mean for the average user like me and you? For one, user-submitted content would be much more closely monitored, limiting free speech across the web.
Additionally, the language in the bill is so vague that copyright holders could target video-sharing services like YouTube or Vimeo for allowing home video content that contains copyrighted music in the background, for example.
And instead of simply removing the alleged infringing post or video, service providers would be forced to block access to the site in its entirety, punishing users all across the country for the actions of a few.