On Jan 18th a couple of extremely prominent websites went “dark” to protest two bills currently winding their way through the Congress, SOPA and PIPA. Many are wondering exactly what SOPA and PIPA are and why they are so terrible. Here’s the breakdown in non-geek speak:
What are They?
SOPA stands for “Stop Online Piracy Act” and is a bill being sent through the House of Representatives to prevent the theft of intellectual property/content on the internet.
PIPA is the “Protect IP Act” which is the Senate’s equivalent of SOPA.
The intent of these two bills is to, basically, stop online piracy and protect the groundwork of the “internet economy”. Sounds pretty noble, I know. Unfortunately, what it sounds like it does and what it actually does are not the same. Not even close, in this case.
What Do They Do?
The basis of these bills is to empower content owners to be able to shut down a site that is compromising (i.e. stealing) its content. The face of these bills is to enable movie/music/publishing studios to shut down torrent sites like The Pirate Bay and others of its ilk when they illegally distribute copyrighted content. Sounds pretty good, right? We don’t like Somali Pirates, why should we like internet pirates? Unfortunately, millions of people illegally download content every day (shame on you!), and that costs a lot of profit world wide. Profit is income and income is more jobs, more taxes, more consumption, etc, etc.
Unfortunately, neither bill is really empowered to actually achieve this objective. Saying you want to shut down foreign hosted torrent sites is a far cry from actually being able to do it. After all, there are dozens of laws that already provide for the protection of copyrighted material. It’s not like you need another law to say that stealing is wrong — it’s wrong.
What this law actually does is provide legal support for the indiscriminate shutting down of websites by powerful ISP holders and content owners on the grounds of copyright. Without any legal sanction whatsoever.
What Exactly Does That Mean?
OK, here’s where things can get into the weeds, so I’m going to tread gently to keep this at the big picture level.
SOPA and PIPA allow, basically, for the disassembly of the internet. Yeah, that’s a big claim, I know. It does this by a few key provisions, mainly: 1) The main provision, protection from copyright infringement, 2) The “Vigilante Clause” and 3) the “Anti-Circumvention” policy.
Here they are one at a time:
Copyright Infringement Protection. The selling point for this was to prevent online piracy, as I said. Primarily movies, music, and eBooks, but it opens the door to a lot more. And that’s where the problem really hits. What are the limits to “copyright infringement”? It’s easy when you say you want to prevent illegal downloads of “Ghost Protocol”. It’s hard when you get into ideas, quotes, and pictures. How weird can this get? Well, currently DC Comics is suing a slew of fans and tattoo shops for tattoos of their licensed characters. I have a Green Lantern t-Shirt and was wearing it when my children were born. There are pictures of me holding my children in that t-shirt online. The sites that hold those pictures can be shut down under the provisions of SOPA and PIPA. And, if they can shut down guy wearing a Green Lantern shirt, they can shut down a site with pics of a Nike shirt or shoes. Are you a running blogger? Did you include a picture when you wrote a negative review of some Nike shoes? Guess what? They can SHUT YOU DOWN under SOPA/PIPA. It’s not just about stealing music — there is no defined limit to intellectual property in SOPA/PIPA so everything is free game.
The Vigilante Clause. The internet is a big place, so the government is relying on the content providers to let them know when their copyright is being infringed upon. Let that sink in for a minute. Now, imagine how that can be used to destroy competition? Crush start ups? Prevent legal Freeware? How does that hit home? Imagine, if you will, this scenario: LibreOffice is a powerful, free office suite that is compatible with Microsoft Office. It is a potent competitor to MS Office. But, how is it compatible with MS Word, for example? Why, to even know what MS Word formatting is, the makers of LibreOffice had to have accessed some type of propriety MS intellectual property somehow, right? “Of course they did”, MS says. “They’re stealing our intellectual property and giving away our product! We charge $349.99 for MS Office! Off with their ISP!” And, just like that, LibreOffice is gone. No need for proof, just suspicion. Vigilante justice has come to quell the unrest of the Wild Wild Web. Does that make you feel safer?
The Anti-Circumvention Act. Ever had a problem with your tech related to DRM? You know, how to get your iTunes songs onto your Android phone or rip the DVD you bought so you can watch it on your iPhone in the gym? Guess what? Under SOPA/PIPA if you make a post (or even link to on Facebook or Twitter!) about how to overcome that little problem, you’re gonna get shut down. Maybe even face actual criminal charges. No shit. And, remember, this isn’t the government doing the shutting — it’s the content providers and ISP holders. In the world of super-corporations, that is a really wide range of stuff. How many companies does GE own? How about COMCAST? Or FOX? Disney? And, while that’s sinking in, what do you think the level of abuse is going to be?
Just as an aside, you know the valiant efforts of hackers world wide that have been helping nations under tyranny have access to a free internet by providing patches to circumvent debilitating firewalls and tracking programs? Well, under the anti-circumvention provision, they would all be declared criminals and subject to deletion from the web. The websites and chat rooms they use as well. Hard to imagine, those groups actively practicing and protecting freedom and democracy will be judged enemies of the state under SOPA/PIPA. Is that really the path we want to choose?
How Bad Can It Get?
Not to be overly alarmist, but this can get crazy bad.
The potential for abuse is extraordinarily huge. And, with that, the risk for creating an internet venture — even a simple website — is staggeringly huge. Imagine what Facebook will have to do to patrol it’s millions of users to make sure no one posted any infringing pictures or cited a risky link? And lets not even bring up YouTube! How many Batman, Lego, Star Wars, and super hero parodies are there on the largest video sharing site in the world? How many videos about product reviews? How many bootlegged concert recordings? Do you have a picture or video on your site with a television in the background? What about birthday party pictures with licensed characters as decorations?
With that much legal liability hanging out there, developers and angel investors will be extremely hesitant to fund any future ventures. Know what that means? Only those in power (i.e. content and ISP holders) will be developing web applications from now on. The start up culture will be over.
The Bottom Line
SOPA and PIPA are terrible, evil bills that leave the door wide open for the destruction of free speech, capitalism, and the concept of freedom in the digital age. These are very, very bad pieces of legislation and need to be defeated. Do your part and please contact your representatives about these bills.