What Is SOPA and Why Is The Internet Shutdown Today?

Today is an internet wide protest against SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and PIPA, the Protect IP Act. Both these acts were drafted as a measure to curb online piracy but it can be politely described as the shotgun approach to a solution. It basically makes everyone liable for piracy from the companies doing any unauthorized streaming or hosting of files, any company that is deemed to facilitate said streaming or downloading, and anyone actually doing the downloading or streaming. In other words, everyone one on the internet could potentially run afoul of SOPA.

For out blackout day post, we’ve got a look at what specifically make SOPA so horrible and what can be done to keep the internet from changing forever.

What Is SOPA?

Like I said above, SOPA is an anti-piracy act for the internet age. However, this basically gives the Americans carte blanche to censor the internet based on the requests of copyright holders. Under SOPA, US authorities can:

  1. Order internet service providers to alter their DNS servers from resolving the domain names of websites in foreign countries that host illegal copies of videos, songs, and photos.
  2. Order search engines like Google to modify search results to exclude foreign websites that host illegally copied material.
  3. Order payment providers like PayPal to shut down the payment accounts of foreign websites that host illegally copied material.
  4. Order ad services like Google’s AdSense to refuse any ads or payment from foreign sites that host illegally copied content.

The long and short of that is that the US Attorney General’s office can shut down any means of accessing a website directly via a US based internet service provider or through US based search engines. They can also prevent websites from buying ads and ban companies (like PayPal and credit card companies) from processing and distributing payments to websites hosting “illegal” content.

In order to get these four actions taken, a company with illegally hosted content just has to issue a notice to takedown the content. A targeted website has five days from receiving the notice to respond with letter that they will challenge the takedown notice in court. Similarly, within five days of receiving a notice about a website, ISP, search engines and payment firms must cut off these targeted websites. In other words, if you’re a targeted website, you can go to court and go broke or have all traffic and revenue cut off and go broke.

What if the targeted website isn’t in the United States and therefore not governed by American laws? Well, that’s why SOPA talks so much about ISPs, search engines and payment companies. If the Attorney General can’t impose SOPA on you, it’ll impose SOPA on those entities that send traffic and revenue to foreign websites that host illegal content. In other words, SOPA is the beginning of internet censorship. In fact, it contains language that gives some immunity to ISPs who proactively block access to websites they believe are in place for the theft of copyrighted US content. And, yes, these illegal content distribution sites can include places like Facebook, Twitter and anywhere you can link to illegal content, not just the host.

What SOPA does, in effect, is give copyright holders the means to control the internet. Since the Attorney General, copyright holders and ISPs can essentially dictate which websites are accessible by Americans, comparisons to the Great Firewall of China is entirely valid. There are also valid concerns that this censorship could stifle creativity on the internet because people would be running scared of the Attorney General’s goons.

While SOPA tries to help copyright holders protect their intellectual property rights, it goes too far in punishing everyone along the supply chain. Everyone from the host site to the end-user could be fined or imprisoned. That’s too much power for anyone to wield over what could amount to a simple 3-minute MP3 of a song.

Who Is Opposed To SOPA?
Anybody who is anybody on the internet is opposed to SOPA. This includes Google, Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, eBay, Mozilla, Yahoo, AOL, LinkedIn, Reddit and WikiMedia. Every major human rights group is also opposed to SOPA. Interestingly, even the European Parliament passed a resolution stating the “need to protect the integrity of the global Internet and freedom of communication by refraining from unilateral measures to revoke IP addresses or domain names.”

It’s probably worth noting that WordPress is also participating in today’s blackout. Their users (read: people who blog on the WordPress platform like us) haven’t heard anything directly from them yet. Outside sources (Twitter users and tech blogs) tell me that we’re going to be hit with a blackout here though. Don’t know if it’ll just be the front page or all the blogs, though.

Who Supports SOPA?
The biggest supporters of SOPA are the Motion Picture association of america, the Recording Industry Association of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. There are other supporters all of whom have an interest in protecting their intellectual property rights (though those IP rights might not necessarily protected any more so under SOPA). These include Nike, L’Oréal, Acushnet Company (golf apparel), Ford, L’Oreal and Pfizer among over 400 business that publicly support SOPA.

So Why Is The Internet Shut Down Today?

The bosses at Reddit decided to blackout (basically, shutdown) their website today from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM in order to protest SOPA. The Senate vote on SOPA was scheduled to take place next week but was delayed on Monday. However, the blackout will go ahead to get the point across. The idea of the blackout works because the participating websites will show their reasons for protesting SOPA on their front page during the blackout. This will get the message across. Even if the vote is delayed, it will still happen meaning that the blackout still can’t have an effect.

Reddit has confirmed that they will blackout for 12 hours today from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM. Boing Boing will also participate, likely for 12 hours. Wikipedia’s English pages will blackout for 24 hours on Wednesday which will likely make the biggest splash of the day (unless a social media site joins in the blackout at the last second). As noted above, WordPress may blackout but bloggers are out of the loop on that.

What Can I Do To Help?

Well, if you’re not in America, like us, there’s not much you can do. We’ll all be affected by SOPA (in some way or another) but our opinions don’t matter because we’re not American. The US Congress thinks they can impose their own laws upon the world but won’t let the world have their say when they’ll be affected. Political rant over.

If you’re in America, your best course of action is to get in touch with your Representative in the House or your Senator. You can either call them or send them a letter. The Stop American Censorship website of the group Fight For The Future is probably the best place to go for action to take to get the word out against SOPA.

Sources:
The Verge
Wikipedia

Lifehacker

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