You may've noticed Wikipedia has gone black today, to protest against something called SOPA. Hell, you might’ve even noticed Reddit joining in on the fun, too. But before you start thinking the world's thrown in the hygiene towel and is protesting against soap -- learn these valuable facts about the US law, which could end up affecting us all. Yes, even us Brits.
SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, is a piece of legislation that aims to help protect content companies against piracy. It’s currently working its way through the US Congress, which just like our government, gives Acts a period of review before they become law. It’s partnered with a second act that is currently in the US Senate called the Protect IP Act (or PIPA for short). Both cutesy names; both with the power to inflict some dire consequences on the internet as we know it.
The major problem with SOPA isn’t what it’s set out to try and do, but the way it’s been implemented. At its heart it will allow intellectual property owners -- the TV and movie studios as well as record labels -- to just pull the plug on sites they think they have a copyright claim against. Unfortunately it’s not just limited to the US either; they can block international sites too just as easily.
It’s not even just the type of ISP blockade that we’ve seen in the UK revolving around Newzbin either. Scarily, the act could allow content owners to demand Google remove the offending site from its index; to order PayPal to stop accepting payments to or from the site, or even US-based advertisers to pull ads from the site -- essentially cutting it off at the knees. Considering quite a few of the services we rely on and enjoy in Britain are actually run from the US, this could cause serious issues for us Brits, even though SOPA isn’t a UK law.
One of the most shocking things about SOPA is the simple disregard for due process it’ll allow. Content owners won’t need to go to court, or even just get a judge to sign it off. Right now we’re going through that kind of mess here in the UK, but at least you still need a court order to get an ISP to block a site.
If SOPA passes, all an IP owner would need to do is send a letter to his company of choice in the US -- be it Google, PayPal, the ISP, even Visa or MasterCard -- and have it claim a “good faith belief” that the target site in question has infringing content on it. The recipient of said “belief” would have just five days to either comply with the order, or challenge it in court -- not exactly a cheap option. As it stands now, all that can already be accomplished in US law without SOPA, but the content owner needs to get a court order first, just like they do here in the UK.
Unfortunately it gets worse. A provision in the bill called the “vigilante provision” gives broad immunity to any provider who proactively shutters sites it considers to be infringers. In essence it means that the MPAA, or anyone else like that, could just publish a list of “infringers” to get the whole lot blacklisted. One button press and pop goes the internet.
SOPA also includes an "anti-circumvention" clause, which could have a serious impact on your daily life. For one, if you happened to mention an infringing link, video, or torrent on a site or service you happen to use, the said service would be legally obliged to remove it. Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Tumblr, YouTube, you name it -- everywhere on the web that has feet in the US is at risk. The trouble is that if the service du jour decides that’s nuts and it’s not going to abide by the clause, it faces “enjoinment” with the US government that can and will be used to shut it down.
Frankly, the cost of actually policing that for a service, even for the big guys, would be astronomical. Can you imagine a start-up being able to afford that? Hell no, which could mean start-ups would either be killed off with a quick few blips of a link, or will have to censor every user heavily from the get-go. Who’s going to use a service that essentially censors you out of all enjoyment?
Better yet. What happens when that small site that you use to store your deepest innermost thoughts, photos and videos gets an anti-circumvention shut down notice? It’s not going to have the collateral to fight it, and poof – your digital self is erased off the internet.
The funny thing, or sad, depending on how you look at it, is that it’s not even going to do what it set out to do, which is to kill off non-US-based IP infringers like The Pirate Bay. They’ve been fighting this kind of draconian technical and legal blockade for ages. They’re not based in the US; not funded by US sources, and frankly, don’t give a hoot what America does. The US might as well be firing a mini-gun at a virus. You’re never going to put it down that way.
Besides, America already has the notorious Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), with which the same takedown system can be achieved – we’ve all come across “this video has been removed” messages after a DMCA infringement on a US video site, so you know it works.
Even though SOPA is an ill thought-out, ludicrously powerful, terrifically terrible bit of legislation, it still has a significant chance of making it into US law. That’s why we’re getting hit with the site blackouts, and every Tom, Dick and Harry is complaining about it (including yours truly). If the sane and intelligent people in the US don’t do something about this, with the help of the international community (that’s you by the way), SOPA could get approved and your internet lives could be at risk.
So the big question is: why should we, the Great British public, care about some stupid American law? Well, hopefully the threat of having your online life cut off and your favourite America-based services at best gimped, at worst shut down, is enough to show you that you should care.
But if that isn’t enough, you wait till this passes. Given our track record as America’s bitch, with extraditions and US law being imposed on our own soil, how long do you think it’ll take the immense pressure from the lobbying content creators to force the hand of our dear PM and his government into implementing something similar here? Then it really will be game over.
For more information on SOPA, the potential effects, protests and US perspective, check out our American cousin’s coverage here.