The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the United States House of Representatives and its counterpart in the Senate, the PROTECT IP Act, would give the United States government and copyright holders unprecedented powers over Americans’ access to the web.
If the government believes that a website is engaging in copyright infringement or is facilitating such infringement, SOPA would give it the power to censor the website in the United States and cut off its revenue stream. Internet service providers, advertising networks and search engines would be forced to assist the government. If the government requests it, ISPs need to modify their DNS settings to block access to an infringing website’s domain name, preventing all but the most sophisticated users from accessing it. Advertising services could be forced to terminate any business relationships with such sites, hindering the site’s ability to make money. Search engines would be required to remove any traces of the website from their results.
For one who believes in strong intellectual property rights, this may seem like prudent legislation; the government it would give the ability to speedily remove infringing material from the web, at least for Americans. However, SOPA gives the government the right to decide what content Americans can and cannot view on the Internet. This level of censorship is expected of the People’s Republic of China.
SOPA would also give powers above those in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to copyright holders. It would erode the DMCA’s safe harbor provision, which limits the liability of companies such as YouTube if its users engage in copyright infringement so long as the companies respond to takedown requests from copyright holders. A copyright holder could now appeal directly to the advertising service that a website uses by filing a notification. In that case, the advertising service would be required to terminate its relationship with the offending website unless the webmaster files a counter-notification.
Companies already using the DMCA to remove material that clearly meets the criteria for fair use, but they can only remove the ostensibly offending material. SOPA would allow them to hinder the website’s ability to make money and would result in self-censorship by frightened webmasters.
SOPA would also increase the penalties for several forms of copyright infringement. Most notably, streaming copyrighted content without a license would become a penalty punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison.
To coincide with the first hearing in the House of Representatives regarding SOPA, several organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons, have designated today American Censorship Day. The goal is to raise awareness about the harmful effect that SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act would have on the Internet and to spur Americans to write to Congress expressing their grievances. Webmasters are urged to block their site’s logo for the day with a code provided on the American Censorship Day website.
Peter Suderman of Reason has a great article on SOPA. The American Censorship Day website also has additional information, including an infographic detailing the effects that SOPA would have and a video exposing the PROTECT IP Act (see below). The Electronic Frontier Foundation is covering the hearing at #censored.
Edit: Added a link to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s coverage of the hearing.