All About PIPA and SOPA, the Bills That Want to Censor Your Internet
For those of you who may not fully understand the danger these bills present:
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) are two bills that sound like they have a mildly positive aim but, in reality, have serious potential to negatively change the internet as we know it. While the Obama administration has come out against SOPA, effectively shelving it indefinitely, the very similar PIPA bill is still alive and well. Both SOPA and PIPA put power in the hands of the entertainment industry to censor sites that allegedly "engage in, enable or facilitate" copyright infringement. This language is vague enough to target sites you use every day, like Facebook and Google, making these bills a serious problem. Here's what you need to know about the bills and what you can do about them.
Due to the recent opposition of the Obama administration and focus changing to PIPA, we decided to make an update to this post to make it a bit more relevant. While SOPA is likely dead, we're explaining both bills as they're very similar.
What Are SOPA and PIPA All ABout, and Why Should I Care?
The idea behind these bills sounds reasonable. They came about in order to try and snuff out piracy online, as the entertainment industry is obviously not excited that many people are downloading their products without payment or permission. The issue is, however, that it doesn't really matter whether you're in support of piracy, against it, or just don't care. The methods are ineffective. Here's what they are and why they're problematic.
SOPA and PIPA were initially designed to do two things. The first was to make it possible for companies to block the domain names of web sites that are simply capable of, or seem to encourage copyright infringement. This would have been bad for everyone because such a measure doesn't actually prevent piracy. The reason that blocking a domain name isn't effective is because any blocked site can still be accessed via its numeric IP address. For example, if lifehacker.com were blocked, you could still find it by visiting a number-based address. In fact, before the bills were even supposed to come to a vote, tools were created to automatically route domain names to their IP addresses to completely render this measure of SOPA and PIPA useless. As a result, the IP-blocking provisions have been removed from both bills.
The other, still-active measure present in the SOPA and PIPA bills would allow rights holders to cut of the source of funding of any potentially infringing web site. This means any other companies doing business with this site would have to stop. Whether that means advertising, links in search engines, or any other listings would have to be removed.
There is, however, an important difference between SOPA and PIPA. SOPA targeted any site that contributed to copyright infringement, even if it was simply facilitating the act by providing a tool that could be used for illegal purposes (regardless of intention). PIPA, on the other hand, requires the targeted site to have no significant use beyond copyright infringement. Basically, PIPA can only be used to censor a site if it's more likely to be a source of illegal content than not. This is still problematic because a tool designed to accept user-generated content is, to some extent, at the whims of its users. If infringing content is found, rights holders already have the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) to help them request the legal removal of that content. They also have the ability to sue infringers for damages, as we've previously seen with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) when they, for example, sued a 12-year-old for downloading music. SOPA and PIPA provide a means to censor the tool that provided a means for the infringing content to exist on the internet rather than the content itself. This puts a lot of power in the hands of rights holders and has significant potential for abuse.
This is, of course, our interpretation of these bills. Because we love the internet and oppose censorship, we have an obvious bias. While we believe the right thing to do is to oppose these bills, you should make an informed decision on your own. For more information, please read the exact content of both the SOPA and PIPA bills.
What Can I Do About SOPA and PIPA?
Currently Twitter, Google, Reddit, Kickstarter, Tumblr, Mozilla, Yahoo, AOL, eBay, Zynga, Facebook, and several other sites have spoken out in opposition of SOPA and PIPA. In fact, many sites are censoring their logos (e.g. Google) or completely taking down their sites (e.g. Wikipedia) in protest on January 18th, 2012. There is incredible opposition to these bills because they don't just affect users like you, or small startups, but even very large companies with a large stake in the great things the internet and modern technology have to offer. If you'd like to join in your protest, there are a few things you can do.
First, call your congressperson on the phone. This is especially important if you live in a state with SOPA and/or PIPA supports or sponsors. Nonetheless, if your congresspeople do not support these bills you should still contact them to voice your support for their position.
Second, get the word out. Post this article, the American Censorship Day web site, or any other information about SOPA/PIPA on your social media accounts. Send emails to friends and family. If you oppose the bill, help others to understand why you believe they should oppose and encourage them to read more so they can make an informed choice.
Let's End the Fight and Start a Discussion
Finally, if you know a supporter or person in favor of SOPA and/or PIPA, have an open discussion. Myself and many others believe that the root of this problem stems from a lack of communication on both sides. Despite what my articles may suggest, I'm not a supporter of piracy. I do believe there is a compromise that both sides can reach with enough discussion, education, and understanding. It's important to remember that both the supporters and opposers of SOPA and PIPA have legitimate concerns. This should not be a fight but rather a cooperative discussion to find a solution. Whichever side you're on, please encourage a conversation that will move us towards change that is good for everyone rather than extreme measures that won't help anyone.