If you’re in any way related to the Internet, chances that you haven’t heard about SOPA and PIPA after last Wednesday are slim. The day Wikipedia and some other high-profile websites went black elevated these pleasant-sounding legal acronyms to the top of today’s trending topics. And it became something of a tipping point, too, in what had looked like a niche debate with no or very few consequences for the public. As the anti-SOPA movement picked up speed, it managed to put across a powerful message to the world that the U.S. Congress is tinkering with a very sensitive issue. Because it is.
SOPA and PIPA are twin congressional proposals that are currently making their way through the US legislative process. SOPA stands for Stop Online Piracy Online and PIPA stands for Protect IP Act. They’re both directed at making life more difficult for non-US websites that are in violation of American copyright laws and host, distribute or stream copyrighted content. Well, if their intentions are so noble, why are so many high-profile individuals and organizations coming together to rally against it? Is Wikipedia not against online piracy?
Of course, it is against pirating content or software and so are most people, including the majority of anti-SOPA protesters. The problem is that the Congress is pushing for a major shake-up of legal regulation affecting not just a few offshore offenders but the entire cyberspace, especially its incredibly vibrant US core. And it’s the kind of influence with a high potential for unintended consequences.
If SOPA and PIPA pass, intellectual property rights holders (music companies, film studios, etc.) will get the instrument they could use to indirectly hit a website in violation of their rights. Because many such services are located outside the US, hence outside US jurisdiction, it will be American companies that provide essential online services, from search to payment processing, who will bear the responsibility to punish the offender. This means Google will have to block it from its search results, PayPal will have to freeze its accounts and so on.
According to many industry experts and lawyers, taking this course of action is sure to open up a tremendous potential for abuse and creative exploitation of the new laws. It’s especially upsetting considering that SOPA and PIPA offer a fast track procedure to those placing a copyright claim. More importantly, though, the bills will place the burden of delivering the technological and organizational solution for the whole clean-up process on Internet companies. Even if it’s possible to sustain this kind of self-policing, smaller players, such as start-ups, would face a steep incline to secure resources needed to finance and maintain such systems.
Another criticism of SOPA and PIPA has to do with the fact that there are regulations in existence in the American law that set the framework for handling such cases. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMC) is the most important piece in this field. Also importantly, the twin anti-piracy proposals have been ridiculed by the owners of such sites as Pirate Bay as inadequate and insufficient. Weeding out international piracy is like trying to hit a fast-moving target, but it looks like the US authorities started to take it seriously. Shutting down MegaUpload on Thursday (one day after anti-SOPA protests) may be a harbinger of a tougher stance.