The Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, is a United States bill introduced into the House of Representatives in October of 2011. The goal of the bill was to increase the law enforcement’s ability to fight the online trafficking of copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods. Much controversy has stemmed from the bill with supporters claiming that it leads to more protection of copyrighted material like movies, music, and books and creates more American jobs. Opponents of the bill claim it is Internet censorship that violates the First Amendment. Opposition led to several protests, including blackouts and petition drives from major websites.
Provisions of the Stop Online Piracy Act included several measures to block or bar websites accused of infringing on copyrighted material. First of all, under the proposed law, court orders could be requested to prevent networking and payment facilities from conducting business with infringing websites. These court orders could also bar search engines from linking to these websites or require Internet Service Providers to block access to them. The law would also expand criminal penalties for the unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content and impose a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment for ten violations within six months.
The bill was drafted with the intent of banning foreign-owned websites from U.S. consumers that were found to be violating copyright laws. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI shut down the file-sharing website Megaupload based in Hong Kong because of concerns over copyright infringement. Also, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized the domain for TVShack.net because the site linked to pirated files. SOPA would increase the ability of law enforcement to go after websites that infringement on copyrights. The bill also established a two-step process for intellectual property-right holders to go through if they have been harmed by those sites dedicated to infringement.
The introduction of the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House has generated a large amount of controversy over issues such as a free and open Internet, the role of copyrights in creating incentives for innovation, and government censorship. Proponents of the legislation believe the bill is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws and protect intellectual property and content creators. It ensures that economic incentives remain to encourage new writings, research, products and services in the global marketplace creating more American jobs and revenue. It also would protect consumers from counterfeit drugs sold from the websites of foreign pharmacies.
Not surprisingly, supporters included the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of American, and the Entertainment Software Association. Other large companies supporting the bill included ViaCom, Nike, the AFL-CIO, NBCUniversal, the NBA, Ford Motor Company, Revlon, and Pfizer. SOPA has also found widespread support from various other smaller companies and unions in the cable, movie, and music industries who have the most to lose from the free trade of copyrighted content. They say that producers of Internet content will benefit because it makes targeting copyright violators easier and less costly.
On the other hand, opponents state that the proposed legislation threatens free speech and innovation while enabling law enforcement to block access to entire Internet domains due to infringing content posted on a single blog or web site. The opposition to SOPA rises from concerns that it undermines the openness and free exchange of information at the heart of the Internet. It not only violates the First Amendment, but bill has been declared unconstitutional by the majority of Internet users.
Opponents point out the many negative consequences of a bill like that. SOPA encourages Internet Service Providers and website owners to be proactive and make sure their sites are not engaging in copyright infringement. That could have a negative impact on online communities that are user generated like the websites Etsy, Flickr, and Vimeo. Opponents say it would have similar effects on the Internet in the U.S. as China’s Great Firewall. A website would have to actively monitor its content and identify violations to avoid being blocked for the slightest infraction.
Opponents of SOPA include major Internet websites and corporations like Google, Yahoo!, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, LinkedIn, eBay, the Mozilla Corporation, Reddit, Wikipedia, Kaspersky Labs, and the Zynga Game Network. Other organizations opposed to the bill include organizations such as the ACLU and Human Rights Watch. As an alternative to SOPA, opponents in Congress proposed the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN), a bill that could stop the transfer of money to foreign websites engaging in piracy or counterfeiting. The purpose of the OPEN Act is to protect legitimate web businesses, websites, and social media.
There have been numerous protests to SOPA and related legislation. On January 18, 2012, Wikipedia, Reddit, and another 7,000 other smaller websites coordinated a blackout to raise awareness of the bill. Other websites gathered petitions against the legislation, and Google stated it collected over seven million signatures. Some websites participated in American Censorship Day in which they hung a black banner over their logos. Other protests included boycotts of companies and organization that supported SOPA and an opposition rally held in New York.
On January 20, 2012, the bill was effectively killed when the House Judiciary Committee postponed plans to draft the bill. The committee stated they needed a wider consensus on the bill before proceeding. More than anything, SOPA has led to a wider discussion about Internet censorship, the government’s role in controlling access to information, and problems that the Internet has created with copyright laws and intellectual property. Ever since Napster shut down, these are issues that our digital society has dealt with and will most likely continue to deal with in the future.