United States v. Pirates: The SOPA Problem

By: Alida Miranda-Wolff

Early last week, British rapper Dan Bull released a rap video entitled "SOPA Cabana," which accuses the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA or H.R. 3261) of Internet censorship and violating freedom of speech. Bull’s rap is part of the growing anti-SOPA movement, which recently exploded after Internet giants like Google, Facebook, and eBay warned of the bill’s consequences. Opponents of SOPA argue that the law mirrors censorship laws in China, Malaysia, and Iran.

If SOPA is an intentionally and explicitly tyrannical censorship law that threatens to destroy the Internet as we know it, why has it flown under the radar until now?

Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) first introduced SOPA to the House of Representatives on October 26, 2011. The full title of the bill claims:

“… to promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. [intellectual] property, and for other purposes.”

The bill grants the government to enforce copyright and trademark protections held by corporations. SOPA emerged a few months after its Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act (PIPA). The House Judiciary Committee began hearings on the bill on November 16, 2011, giving naysayers ample time to protest.

So, why is there resistance now?

First, the bill considers complicated intellectual property issues that are difficult to understand. The average American does not deal with the intricacies of the Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC). Consequently, the general public does not consider how a law like SOPA could interfere with DNSSEC, especially when facing unemployment, foreclosure, and an ailing economy. However, SOPA opponents like politicians Ron Paul and Nancy Pelosi and companies like Yahoo and LinkedIn attacked the bill in more general terms. By labeling the bill as “censorship” and an “infrignement on First Amendment rights”, these opponents have successfully made SOPA into an issue that Americans can protest.

Second, when SOPA was first introduced, it was considered unenforceable. For example, after the government shut down the torrenting websites Bearshare and Grokster, which are communities that encourage large-scale electronic file sharing, the torrenting community did not fall apart. Instead, users fragmented, making piracy detection more difficult. It may still be possible for dedicated users to access the same material, but SOPA would make it easier than ever before for copyright holders to sue websites, which distribute copyrighted material. Venture capitalists fear this ease of litigation, believing investment in a web-based company may involve more legal expenditures than business management. According to its opponents, SOPA would decrease investments and limit innovation.

Finally, opponents of SOPA do not hold that the bill is intentionally harmful, but flawed in its construction. SOPA gives copyright holders and the government the power to seek court orders against websites that host or traffic counterfeit or stolen intellectual property. If the bill is enforced, the Department of Justice (DOJ) would decide if a website infringes or enables infringement of intellectual property. Depending on the infringement, the DOJ can bar search engines from listing or linking to it, order domain name registrars to take it down, force service providers to block access to it, and ban payment processors like PayPal to stop working with it.

This lengthy process is SOPA’s main flaw. H.R. 3261 bars access to specific sites, meaning Internet services providers must inspect all the Internet traffic of its entire user base. These companies would invade millions of users’ privacy in order to meet governmental demands. The bill would also allow the DOJ to take down websites with virtually no obstacles, fueling censorship concerns. If the DOJ alone is in charge of website surveillance, it could easily shut down websites it does not like or support, especially whistle-blowing websites.

The Stop Online Piracy Act was created to protect major corporations reliant on trademarks like Pfizer, Nike, and Sony and copyright-dependent organizations like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). While these companies present valid concerns, the bill should not exert total control over the Internet and free speech. Unfortunately for its opponents, the government’s inability to acknowledge and amend the potential consequences threatens privacy, free speech, and business. The House has rejected twenty amendments intended to prevent these unintended consequences already. The bill will most likely pass in early January without undergoing major changes. Its supporters and its opponents can only guess what will follow its passage.

Alida Miranda-Wolff is a second-year double major in English and Law, Letters, and Society pursuing a path in law.

Editor’s Note: To prevent the House of Representatives from passing SOPA, contact your local representative(s), register with Stop American Censorship and Stop Censorship, and sign the “Stop the E-PARASITE Act” Petition.