Have you heard about the Stop Online Piracy Act, or the PROTECT IP Act? The tech industry is talking about it. And that could be because it hasn’t gotten any mainstream media attention until the White House publicly said it would not let it through if Congress passed it in its current form. But what is it? Why are Google and Facebook against it?
Let’s get the background on what it is, and what are the rationale of both sides of the argument.
What does SOPA/PIPA do?
Both the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) aim to stop copyright infringement – especially on digital content and pharmaceuticals that are outside the US borders. The only main difference between the two acts is that SOPA is the House of Representatives’ version, while PIPA is the Senate equivalent.
However, while everyone would support stopping copyright infringement – the main issue is how SOPA and PIPA ‘prevent’ copyright infringement.
But what does SOPA do? Well, it forces service providers to “take feasible and reasonable measures” to prevent US citizens getting access to the infringing site once they get an order by a court. These measures include “prevent[ing] the domain name… from resolving to that domain name’s Internet Protocol address”. It also includes provisions for forcing search engines to not list the infringing site.
Then we get to some of the more interesting stuff in this act. There is also a part of the legislation that will make it a federal offense to get around the ban. Anyone that “fails to comply” or “willfully provides or offers to provide a product… designed or marketed for the circumvention or bypassing” of the ban will find themselves in court.
I should also point out that the author of the SOPA Bill – Lamar Smith – has now decided to remove the part where ISPs will have to block sites. However, making ISPs and search engines responsible will most likely still be in the amended copy.
In addition, Section 103 gives powers to corporations to cut the supply of advertising and payment services to websites that are deemed (by them, I should add) to be infringing on copyright. This means that News Corporation could in effect cut off this very site’s supply of ad revenue from Google because they can claim, without any due process, that I have stole their content. And they have to do this within 5 days – unless the person accused “onsents to the jurisdiction of the courts of the United States, and will accept service of process from the person who provided notification” of theft. In other words, you ignore your own domestic law (e.g. Australian law) for US law.
As The Verge’s Nilay Patel – also a legal expert on technology issues – points out: while the law is designed to attack foreign sites, realistically domestic sites are also implicated. “Because US copyright holders generally can’t drag a foreign web site into US courts to get them to stop stealing and distributing their work, SOPA allows them to go after the ISPs, ad networks, and payment processors that are in the United States,” he writes.
Who supports what?
Obviously, those supporting the bill are Hollywood and media companies – including News Corporation and NBCUniversal. In addition, there are pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers, and the US Chamber of Commerce. GoDaddy was a former supporter, before the company retracted their support after some heavy criticism from its users.
Opposing, however, are Google, Facebook, Yahoo, the Consumer Electronics Association (the guys who run CES) and many other websites. In addition, Reddit and Wikipedia will block out their websites in protest; and there has been a movement to stop buying those who support the legislation.
But why each side is against it, or for it?
Well, the US Chamber of Commerce noted in a letter to the New York Times that these “rouge websites” steal jobs from the industry. “Rogue sites are often located outside the United States, beyond the reach of our enforcement agencies. Proposed legislation authorizes a federal court to direct the suspension of services (payment processing, advertisements and linking) to rogue sites,” Mark Elliot, Executive Vice President, wrote.
The Entertainment Software Association – which represents the gaming industry – also said, “Rogue websites – those singularly devoted to profiting from their blatant illegal piracy – restrict demand for legitimate video game products and services, thereby costing jobs. Our industry needs effective remedies to address this specific problem, and we support the House and Senate proposals to achieve this objective.”
Those opposing, however, note that the law will have an impact to economic growth and job creation as the Internet has made a significant contribution to the country’s GDP; undermine their ‘safe habour’ protection that lets them avoid prosecution by removing content when asked under the DMCA; and that the laws “would expose [them]… to new and uncertain liabilities, private rights of action and technology mandates that would require monitoring of websites.”
They, however, agree that action needs to be done on rouge sites, but how SOPA and PIPA is written, it is not the right course.
“While we work together to find additional ways to target foreign ‘rouge’ sites, we should not jeopadize a foundational structure that has worked for content owners and Internet companies alike and provides certainty to innovators with new ideas for how people create, find, discuss and share information lawfully online,” the consortium comprised of Facebook, Google and Yahoo said.
Then we have internet engineers who say that SOPA and PIPA could become a security risk. “Both bills will risk fragmenting the Internet’s global domain name system (DNS) and have other capricious technical consequences,” the engineers wrote.
Again, reiterating, the writer of SOPA has decided to remove the ISP blocking provisions of the bill.
In addition, conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation – and if you have no idea of American politics, this bit is huge – has also noted its opposition. They state that the issue “does not align neatly along party lines” and that SOPA/PIPA could have “unintended negative consequences for the operation of the Internet and free speech.”
… and about the Congress?
Funny thing about that. Many of the supporters got paid lobbying money by the entertainment industry during the 2010 election campaign. Yes, you got that right. They were in effect bought to get them to vote on SOPA and PIPA. Lemar Smith (author of SOPA) got over $150,000 from the Entertainment industry, while Patrick Leahy (author of PIPA) got more than $350,000.
Then you have people like Harry Reid – who is the Majority Leader of the Senate, and Democrat – getting $500,000 to secure his support. In fact; out of the top 10 of sponsors being paid by the Entertainment industry, the Democrats hold eight.
On the other side, we have Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul and Nancy Pelosi (Minority Leader in the House, Democrat). Then we get an interesting sort of characters listed as those opposing – we have Michelle Bachmann and Will Ryan. And if you haven’t been following American politics, then you should read Wikipedia about them – after the blackout, of course.
If we ever needed an example on buying votes, this is it.
All the data can be found here, at ProPublica.
What is happening now?
Well, after the comments by the White House, the House has dropped SOPA (for now), but it appears Lemar will be trying again to revive it. PIPA, however, isn’t dead. Harry Reid – remember him – is pushing for the vote to happen on January 24, despite six Republicans asking him to delay it so the Senate could debate it more. So, the threat of SOPA and PIPA is still around.
Corporate support, however, is slowly dropping like flies. EA, Nintendo and Sony all quietly removed their support (technically, their lobby group still supports it however); in addition to the more famous backflip from GoDaddy. And you’ve got to thank Reddit – where the GoDaddy protest started.
Is there an alternative?
Yes, there is an alternative. Opponents of SOPA have put their support for the OPEN Act, or the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act. The OPEN Act includes Safe Habour protections, and promises that any cases are resolved by experts, not by cutting off money and just making it ‘disappear’.
And you can obviously tell, the Entertainment industry doesn’t like it. The MPAA has labelled the OPEN Act as “fail[ing] to provide an effective way to target foreign rogue websites and goes easy on online piracy and counterfeiting.”
“By changing the venue from our federal courts to the U.S. International Trade Commission, it places copyright holders at a disadvantage and allows companies profiting from online piracy to advocate for foreign rogue websites against rightful American copyright holders,” spokesperson Michael O’Leary wrote.
Eric Goldman, from Santa Clara University School of Law, is also somewhat unimpressed by the law. He claims that the law still suffers from the assumption that “there is a problem with foreign rogue websites that needs to be solved.”
“I’m not saying there isn’t, but the policy discussions have been startlingly devoid of reliable and credible facts demonstrating the nature and scope of the problem,” he writes.
But there is also another non-legislative alternative – make your damn content available online. Piracy exists because people, who want information now (and if you haven’t realised that, then I’m surprised that you still exist), get access to the shows, movies and music easily. Take for instance in Sweden, where music piracy has fallen 25 percent. Why? Because, thanks to Spotify, they can find their content and play it on many devices and in different locations.
Maybe it’s time to start shifting your digital strategy to be more fitting against piracy, rather than locking them down and asking governments to legitimise your failings.