What You Need to Know About SOPA

The Internet is in an uproar over the Stop Online Piracy Act. The battles lines are drawn. Big Media (the record labels, movie studios and TV networks) support the bill while Big Tech (search engines, open source platforms, social networks) oppose it. The bill, introduced to Congress by Representative Lamar Smith, is ostensibly supposed to give the Attorney General the ability to eliminate Internet piracy and to “protect U.S. customers and prevent U.S. support of infringing sites.”

There is a lot that may be wrong with SOPA, but putting the power to censor the Internet into the hands of the government is chief among citizens’ concerns. The law would force Internet Service Providers and search engines to cut off access to infringing sites as well as give the government the ability to stop payment to those sites. How would SOPA work? What do you need to know about the bill? We take a deep dive into everything you need to know below.

How SOPA Would Work

SOPA (bill text) sets up a variety of ways for the U.S. government to block sites that are seen to be infringing on intellectual property. The bill is tailored towards the entertainment industry to protect movie studios, TV networks and record labels from having foreign websites illegally copying and distributing copyrighted works.

Along with the Protect IP Act of 2011, here are the ways the U.S. government can enforce the proposed laws.

1. Force ISPs to block access to Domain Name System servers to infringing foreign sites. Here is the pertinent portion of Section 102 of SOPA: A service provider shall take technically feasible and reasonable measures designed to prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States to the foreign infringing site (or portion thereof) that is subject to the order, including measures designed to prevent the domain name of the foreign infringing site (or portion thereof) from resolving to that domain name’s Internet Protocol address.

2. Force search providers to make such sites that have been flagged as infringing undiscoverable. Prevent the foreign infringing site that is subject to the order, or a portion of such site specified in the order, from being served as a direct hypertext link.

3. Force payments processors to shut down the ability for infringing sites to make money. Suspend its service from completing payment transactions involving customers located within the United States or subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and the payment account.

4. Force Internet advertisers to cease doing business with an infringing site. Prevent its service from providing advertisements to or relating to the foreign infringing site that is subject to the order or a portion of such site specified in the order.

Who would be affected by these mandates from the Attorney General? Foremost, Google. Items 2-4 would directly relate to properties owned or maintained by the search giant. Google is the largest search provider on the planet and has the largest Internet advertising business. It also acts in conjunction with payment processors for its Google Checkout application.

PayPal would also have to comply with notices to cease payments. As would VISA, MasterCard, American Express and other payment processors. Both Visa and MasterCard are on record for supporting SOPA.

Most of the ISPs are onboard with SOPA, including ComCast. That creates an interesting scenario as ComCast also owns NBC. If the power to block infringing sites is left with the ISPs, who is to tell them that they cannot block content that is perceived to be competing with its own?

Who Supports SOPA?

Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee: Smith’s office wrote the bill and he is the primary sponsor. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the subcommittee on intellectual property, competition and the Internet of the House judiciary committee. Rep. Mel Watts, ranking member of the subcommittee on intellectual property, competition and the Internet of the House judiciary committee. Watts was the congressman that made the comments about not understanding how the Internet works. Rep. Howard Berman, member subcommittee on intellectual property, competition and the Internet of the House judiciary committee.

In addition to those four members of the House Judiciary, the Recording Industry Association of America, Most Picture Association of America, most of Hollywood and its various labor organizations (like the Directors Guild), support SOPA.

Gizmodo published the full list of companies that have signed on for support of SOPA. GoDaddy.com is a prominent name as it is a company with its fundamental nature tied to DNS. Prominent names include: Comcast, ABC, ESPN, CBS, Teamsters, Major League Baseball, Sony, Time Warner, Viacom and Warner Music.

Who Is Against SOPA?

Almost all of the major tech corporations are against SOPA. TechCrunch came up with a list of 40 companies that are opposing the bill and the companies that we would think would oppose it are present.

That includes:

Facebook, Google, eBay/PayPal, Foursquare, Kaspersky, Reddit, Mozilla, Tumblr, Twitter, Yahoo, Scribd, Quora, Github, Square, AOL.

In terms of politicos, the only major GOP presidential candidate to touch on the issue is Rep. Michelle Bachmann.

Here are the other major opponents: Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman on Oversight and Government reform and also on the House Judiciary Committee. He is the most prominent opponent and frequently tweets about SOPA/PIPA on his Twitter account. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, member House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, member subcommittee on intellectual property, competition and the Internet of the House judiciary committee. Rep. Jared Polis, the new “champion of the Internet.” Polis is the Judiciary Committee member who made several proposed changes to SOPA to make a court order necessary to take down a website. Rep. Mike Honda, aligned himself with Bachmann on SOPA and has been involved in technology legislation for more than a decade.

The top four representatives listed were the individuals responsible for the markups in the SOPA bill that brought two days of debate to the committee. Essentially, the proposed amendments acted as a filibuster (an intentional delay of vote caused by prolonged political debate) that caused the Judiciary Committee to postpone the debate until the next Congressional session.

Prominent think tank, The Heritage Foundation has come out against SOPA. This is significant as it has deep ties to the GOP and most of the representatives pushing for SOPA are Republicans.

What Are The Next Steps?

SOPA needs to make it out of the Congressional committee. This is likely to happen, according to Government 2.0 correspondent Alex Howard of O’Reilly Media (and sometimes ReadWriteWeb contributor). The next step will be on the House floor where all it needs is majority to make it through to the Senate. That will likely take until the middle of the spring and will give people a chance to complain to their Senators about the bill.

The key for SOPA will be to see if the Senate passes it with a 60-40 majority. If the Senate does pass SOPA by a two-thirds majority (67 votes), President Obama cannot veto the bill, which he would likely do in an election year where much of his campaign will be Internet focused.

PIPA comes up for debate on the Senate floor on the first day of the 2012 session, January 24th. The battle lines for PIPA will determine much of what subsequently happens to SOPA. Senator Harry Reid is going to introduce the bill to the Senate. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has promised to block it and filibuster the bill when it reaches debate.

Who & What To Watch

The reaction of the major tech companies. As Howard points out, Google, Facebook and Wikipedia have not put any messages against SOPA on their homepages. As three of the top 10 websites in the world, that message would reach nearly 100% of all Internet users. On the other hand, there are the major networks. All of the TV networks are supporters of the bill. How will they choose to cover the bill? Will they give it the same due diligence as other bills?


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