At a recent hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), companies and organizations that oppose the bill were branded as “pro-pirates.” The legislation's supporters in the House of Representatives, along with proponents of a similar bill in the Senate known as the PROTECT IP Act, are working hard to pass them and get some version of them signed into law before the end of the year. Among opponents, there is still hope that the loud outcry from tech giants, civil rights groups and public outcry against the bill could keep them from sailing through.
SOPA was introduced in the House of Representatives in October with the strong support of the Chamber of Commerce and film and music industry companies. The bill claims it would stop piracy online, but civic activists and law professionals have stressed it would give corporations unprecedented power to censor almost any site on the internet, thereby stifling free speech online. (Read the bill in a PDF form or an Infographic about the bill)
Here are several of reasons why people call it “draconian” law:
- “Internet death penalty“: One provision of both SOPA and PROTECT IP grants the Attorney General power to cut off sites from the domain name system when copyright infringement is reported. Another provision cuts off the concerned websites’ money supply by forcing the payment processors and advertisers to suspend their services for concerned sites. The bill not only virtually removes the sites from the web but also decimates their mechanisms of financial support.
- Being Blocked and Sued for Contents Random Users Posted on the Sites: The bills would give the government tremendous power to blacklist sites and force Internet service providers, search engines and payment processors to block the sites without a court hearing or a trial. The House version of the bill even enables the rights-holders to sue websites for contents that infringe on copyrights but unknowingly posted by random users.
- Chilling Effects on Social Media: The bill holds Internet companies accountable for each and every violation of copyright committed by their users. It is not hard to imagine how the bill would put enormous pressure on influential social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook and user-generated sites including Youtube and Vimeo. They will need to proactively monitor and censor their users’ activities in order to avoid legal action.
- Huge Burdens for Small Tech Companies: The bill would place several extra hurdles to young tech start-ups whose resources and staff are insufficient to meet all the tight standards.
- Stifle Free Speech Online: Considering potential legal risks, companies and websites would try to ‘play it safe’ and start to over-censor user contents.
Intense Opposition from Tech Companies and Activists
During the past few weeks, internet giants, venture capitalists and civil rights advocacy groups have denounced the bill and they have gained momentum against SOPA and PROTECT IP. Several large technology companies teamed up and bought a full-page advertisement against SOPA in The New York Times. US-based advocates for Internet openness and privacy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called out to users to take action to help stop the bill with their allies. The Chamber of Commerce, however, insisted in its webpage that the SOPA is not a “blacklist bill.”
Reflecting web users’ attention to the bills, four of the top 10 searches were related to the bill at one point during the hearing day. Arstechnica lamented on the low level of debate at the hearing, while ReadWrite Web pointed out that Hollywood is outspending Silicon Valley in terms of lobbying for the bill by an enormous margin. A ‘Protect the Internet’ Tumblr page was set up to help tens of thousands of users bombard their representatives with phone calls. For an explanation of why SOPA's sister bill in the Senate, the PROTECT IP Act is also bad for free expression on the Internet, see PROTECT IP Act Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.
On various forums and community sites, net users have heated debates. Numerous comments were made under the topic, “SOPA would be the end of entertainment industry as we know it…” in one pubic forum. Net user Bammer warned the danger of criminalizing the unchangeable consumer habit:
This is a problem that should be solved by the content-creators through technology, not through the law.
What's worse is, SOPA is likely to make it so risky to download free content too, because as soon as the rights are bought up you're now going to be on the hook for owning copyrighted material, and they will bring dozens of cases against people, regardless of the former status of the works involved.
With flash drives becoming so cheap, I honestly keep expecting to see people selling flash drives “pre-loaded” with popular software at swap meets, in the same way they used to sell floppies, then bootleg carts, then CDs and DVDs.
The opposition is unlikely to prevent SOPA from being brought to a committee vote in the US House of Representatives. The activist group Demand Progress has gathered over 100,000 names of opponents of the bills, which they are asking Senator Ron Wyden, who stands with the opponents, to read out as part of a filibuster to prevent a vote on the Senate version, the PROTECT IP Act.