Stop SOPA And PIPA! A Primer

Brad Chacos

You've probably read the soundbites: critics say that the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act working their way through Congress will stifle technological innovation, trample free speech and unravel the Web as we know it. Thousands of websites have “gone dark” and shut down for at least a portion of the day just to protest the depths of the bills’ combined sucktitude. But do you really know why SOPA sucks? (Hint: The answer’s different now than it was a few weeks ago.) Do you know which websites joined the blackout? Do you know what YOU can do to help? No? You will after reading this.

What Is SOPA?

In its current state, SOPA and PIPA basically require ad networks, payment processors and search engines to stop servicing, paying and indexing (respectively) foreign-based “rogue sites” that host or sell infringing materials ranging from illegal copies of Hollywood movies to rip-off Gucci bags. That doesn’t sound too bad! But as always, the Devil is in the details.

Censorship And Shooting The Messenger

As-is, SOPA would force websites, including search engines, to delete links bound for infringing sites – a practice critics, including Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, call censorship. In fact, Schmidt says the bill would "criminalize linking and the fundamental structure of the Internet itself." on Jan. 18th

The EFF reports that organizations would need to actively police their websites for “anti-circumvention” materials, such as links to blacklisted domains, or they could be dragged into court. Did some loser just post a comment listing the URL of a “rogue site”? If YouTube and Facebook (or YOU ) aren’t right on top of things, they could land in legal hot water. In fact, linking to a site that links to infringing material would technically be a punishable no-no under SOPA/PIPA. You can see why Web-based companies have a problem with this!

Proxy and anonymizing tools would also violate the law if they allowed users to visit blacklisted sites. The very services that helped the Arab Spring rise would be illegal in the U.S. itself.

The “Vigilante” Provision on Jan. 18th

Another problem is that ISPs, ad networks and payment processors receive immunity from prosecution if they voluntarily block potentially infringing material without an injunction from a court – even if it turns out the material isn’t actually, you know, infringing. The EFF points out that companies will likely trip over themselves to pre-ban content and earn immunity rather than possibly get dragged into court for inaction. Over-zealous policing would likely trample free speech and erase content protected by Fair Use laws. Due process, already a weak spot in SOPA/PIPA, could be bypassed completely thanks to the "Vigilante" provision.

SOPA’s Actually Better Than It Used To Be

As bad as that is, the original version of SOPA was much, much worse. It allowed individual copyright holders to shut down ad revenue and payment processing for both foreign and domestic websites – with little proof and no government oversight or intervention required.  It also required ISPs to utilize DNS blacklisting to prevent U.S.-based surfers from connecting to infringing websites at all – a terrifying act of censorship that, if technically implemented, could threaten the stability of the Internet itself . Fortunately, those provisions were recently dropped.

So Why Are Websites “Going Dark”? on Jan. 18th

To spread the word! The major television networks’ coverage of the plight against SOPA/PIPA has been almost conspiratorially absent, as points out . In the face of mainstream ambivalence, tech companies have taken matters into their own hands – it’s hard to ignore thousands of blacked-out websites, after all, especially when they include heavy hitters like:

  • Wikipedia
  • Reddit
  • Greenpeace
  • Mozilla
  • Flickr
  • Twitpic
  • Wired
  • ICanHazCheezburger
  • Internet Archive
  • Imgur
  • Boing Boing
  • Destructoid
  • Center for Technology and Democracy
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • Minecraft

…and many, many more, some of which are only closed half the day, and most (if not all) of which can be found on . Google and Scribd aren’t going dark, but they are displaying links and pop-ups to draw awareness to SOPA/PIPA. Craigslist also drops users into an anti-SOPA splash page before allowing them to continue browsing the site.

By the way, if you need to get your Wikipedia (or whatever) on, there’s a way around the voluntary black outs .

How Can I Help?

It’s easy! Blackout your website using one of the techniques outlined at Daily Dot , or spread awareness by changing your Twitter/Facebook pic to the STOP SOPA pic at . More importantly, get in touch with your Congressional representatives and express your distaste for the bills – and the EFF can help you do just that. on Jan. 18

Where Do The Bills Stand Today?

All of our e-bitching seems to be doing some good. Over the past weekend, the crazy DNS blacklisting requirements were sliced from both bills , the White House issued a statement that said it basically wouldn’t support the bills as they stand, and SOPA was supposedly shelved in the House (although Lamar Smith, the rep that sponsored SOPA, says he plans on pushing it in February ). PIPA is still going strong in the Senate, however, and scheduled for a procedural vote on January 24th.

So there’s your knowledge! But knowing is only half the battle – the other half is killing these beasts for good. Contact your Congressmen today !

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