A little while back I was asked by a reader of this site to comment on SOPA, and as today is the big blackout day of protest, I thought that I'd actually say a thing or two on the subject.
For the tiny percentage of readers who might choose to peruse my website but are unfamiliar with the legislation currently in the House and its counterpart, PIPA, in the US Senate, SOPA is the so called "Stop Online Piracy Act." It is, of course, objectively an attempt to combat online piracy backed by quite a few major entertainment corporations. On the surface this might not seem terrible, as I've written before that piracy is bad, but that's not why SOPA is scary.
See, unless you're a Martian chucking rocks at the Earth, you're already well aware that content piracy is already illegal - so you may be asking yourself "What does SOPA actually do?" Well, I'll tell you -- it pretty much guarantees an end to free speech online.
Okay, that may sound hyperbolic, but let me explain.
One of the greatest protections that has let the internet thrive over the last fifteen years is the one good thing to come out of the otherwise horrific law commonly referred to as the Communications Decency Act of 1996. What it says is that website operators are not legally responsible for what third parties post to their website. So, if say regular TRHOnline commenter Langland makes a libelous comment on my site, he'd be the one to get sued and not me. Likewise, the otherwise abominable DMCA continued these protections with the inclusion of Safe Harbor protections -- as long as I respond properly to DMCA takedown notices, I'm not responsible if Langland were to upload files that violated copyright laws to my site.
Frankly, it's how Youtube has managed to survive.
What SOPA does that is so dangerous to any site that relies on user generated content is that it changes the onus from the uploader to the site itself. Under SOPA, the website must self police. While a little blog like mine might be able to pull that off, one can only imagine what a nightmare that would be for any site with a sizable userbase.
Like, y'know, Facebook.
The scariest parts are the SOPA would also punish sites that merely provide information on how to get around anti-piracy measures. That's right, even talking about it becomes illegal. Now, it's been a while since I read Schenck v United_States, but last time I checked, telling someone how they might get the latest episode of The Mentalist wasn't on the same level as yelling fire in a crowded theater.
I know I've rambled a bit, and maybe this wasn't the best overview of the legislation -- but I hope it at least helped people think about it. People have prematurely called SOPA dead, but while the (scary as heck) DNS provisions will be stripped out... it's very much alive.
Yea this legislation is indeed scary. The last time something like this happened while not necessarily applied to the Internet was the Patriot Act and that right there was gutting the First Amendment rights.
A) Some Olympic-level backpeddling as our various congress-critters realize what a hornets nest of disapproval they've stirred up.
B) This will get silently dropped, ignored for a few months and then quietly slipped in as either a renamed bill with some of the more objectionable parts reworded (See COICA, the prequel to SOPA/PIPA proposed by the very same Senator Leahy) or as a rider on a bill that no one would dare voice dissent on (say a military spending bill for example).
I'd like to say (read: hope) just A will happen but I'm pretty sure we'll see both.
I also have to say that I'm frankly amazed at the sheer volume of work people are unleashing to raise awareness of this bill. If we could figure out how to harness this amount of awareness and activism we could accomplish some amazing things.