Wow, I had no clue SOPA was such a bad idea...

by Rosie Yakob on Dec 23, 2011

Editor’s Note: Thank you Aaron Swartz

Working in the digital world, it’s hard to miss seeing the SOPA drama. Tweets, blog posts, news articles, petitions… It’s everywhere. But the articles about SOPA are pretty jargon-heavy, even for geeks.

And for those outside of the digital/technology industry? I’ve spoken to several people who haven’t heard of SOPA and countless others who have heard of the acronym, but aren’t sure what it stands for or why they’ve heard it.

If SOPA is passed, it will drastically change how the internet exists. It will affect each and every one of us, regardless of the industry we’re in, but the world of social media will especially be affected.

What is SOPA?

SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act. Essentially, it is a bill that was created to protect American intellectual property. When someone in America tries to re-distribute intellectual property that isn’t theirs, they are often prosecuted. But what about those people who live outside America’s jurisdiction who are sharing copyrighted material that belongs to an American? Even if they are charged in a US court, our laws don’t apply to them.

Why is SOPA A Bad Idea?

While the intentions of the bill were good (to protect American intellectual property), the vague language of SOPA will empower corporations to censor the internet. Which is not good. If the bills were passed, the attorney general could create a list of sites that were essentially blacklisted by search engines, service providers, payment providers, etc – without a court hearing or trial. (Um hello, first amendment violation, anyone?!)

Here’s where it gets messy. Because the bill has been designed much like China’s system (though again, without the same intentions), companies would be responsible for users’ actions. Well-put from an NY Times article:

“The burden would be on the website operator to prove that the site was NOT being used for copyright infringement. The effect on user-generated sites like YouTube would be chilling.”

Currently, sites are protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which means that they are protected from prosecution as long as they take down the content that has infringed someone else’s copyright as soon as they find out. For example, let’s say you upload a video to YouTube of a Family Guy episode you recorded. The copyright does not belong to you, but instead to Fox. If Fox sees that you posted the show to YouTube, they can ask YouTube to take it down.  As long as YouTube quickly complies, there are no problems.

However, if SOPA came into effect, the onus would be on YouTube to check every single video – to vet each and every one – to make sure that there aren’t any copyrighted materials being shared. As of February this year, YouTube said 48 hours of video are uploaded every minute, resulting in nearly 8 years of content uploaded every day. Just think about how many people would be needed to monitor content submitted. Even if they began charging users, the cost of the changes they would need to make would likely be unbearable. Even Google would be liable for copyright infringement!

Pair that with the idea of free speech and we’re looking at even more trouble. Studies on global internet censorship show that when the liability/onus is on companies, the employees that are tasked with monitoring are found to play it safe. They tend to over-censor so that they don’t have to worry about getting in trouble.

Some critics have charged that such language could blacklist the next YouTube, Wikipedia, or WikiLeaks. Especially in the case of WikiLeaks, which has posted internal documents not only from governments but also copyrighted documents from U.S. companies and has threatened to post more, it’s hard to see how it would not qualify for blacklisting,” writes CNET.

Finally, SOPA would create conflicts with DNS servers. If you don’t know what a DNS server is, watch the video below – It’s quick, pretty and painless (and tells you exactly what you need to know and no more.) These conflicts would make all of us more vulnerable to hackers, identity theft and cyber attacks.

If you’re thinking “Wow, I had no clue SOPA was such a bad idea… I don’t want our internet to be like China’s,” you should sign this petition and consider calling your local representatives. It  may sound daunting, but read Reddit’s “Idiot’s guide on how to contact your congress person or senator by phone” and it will give you the power! Gizmodo even put together a list of all the companies supporting SOPA and how to contact them.

If you want to read more on SOPA and the mess it could cause, here are 5 of the best resources:

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Lead image source: Shutterstock.com

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Post Author

Rosie is the Co-Founder of Genius Steals, an innovation consultancy helping brands, agencies and rebels with new product concepts, new communication ideas and new ways of thinking, especially about the impact of technology. She is a self-proclaimed internet enthusiast...

  • Tam

    It’s frightening–and isn’t it typical of the way we do things in this country?  The name sure SOUNDS like a good idea but the reality of the bill is something else altogether. I want my YouTube to be the creative engine that it is now, not preventively censored. 

    This reminds me of the Patriot Act (what could be better than being patriotic, right?)  However, what it really means is taking away rights and freedoms while at the same time ‘sounding’ virtuous. 

  • http://twitter.com/rosiesiman rosiesiman

    Totally! 

    I also get really frustrated when politicians and big companies use unnecessary jargon to explain the policy. When I see lots of coverage, I see mostly confusing coverage that doesn’t make the whole story clear to most Americans. 

    To make matters worse, some of the people who are in favor of the bill aren’t able to articulate why they are. When you have huge companies (with huge pockets) backing something, people jump on board without taking time to think things through.

    Thanks for the read, and for your comment!

  • http://twitter.com/rosiesiman rosiesiman

    Totally! 

    I also get really frustrated when politicians and big companies use unnecessary jargon to explain the policy. When I see lots of coverage, I see mostly confusing coverage that doesn’t make the whole story clear to most Americans. 

    To make matters worse, some of the people who are in favor of the bill aren’t able to articulate why they are. When you have huge companies (with huge pockets) backing something, people jump on board without taking time to think things through.

    Thanks for the read, and for your comment!

  • http://twitter.com/rosiesiman rosiesiman

    Totally! 

    I also get really frustrated when politicians and big companies use unnecessary jargon to explain the policy. When I see lots of coverage, I see mostly confusing coverage that doesn’t make the whole story clear to most Americans. 

    To make matters worse, some of the people who are in favor of the bill aren’t able to articulate why they are. When you have huge companies (with huge pockets) backing something, people jump on board without taking time to think things through.

    Thanks for the read, and for your comment!

  • http://twitter.com/bentannenbaum Ben Tannenbaum

    Appreciate you synthesizing the facts here. 

    Using your Family Guy scenario as an example, YouTube really has no incentive to do anything more than take down videos that violate copyright on a one-off, per request basis as mandated by DMCA. 

    This puts the burden on copyright holders/content creators (in this case Fox) to scour YouTube’s platform for videos posted without their authorization, while Youtube continues to financially benefit (via advertising) from content who’s creation they have not supported in any meaningful/financial way.

    While I agree SOPA, as currently written, will not be an effective solution, I am curious at what you think can be done to improve upon DMCA and better protect intellectual property? 

    Again, while I don’t agree with the SOPA, many of companies railing against it have a financial stake in the free distribution of other people’s intellectual property continuing unabated. Therefore, its hard to see them solely as the noble protectors of free speech. They say that SOPA will ‘break the internet’ but it’s also true that they stand to make billions of dollars from the Internet staying just the way it is.

    Let’s not be too quick to tout these technology companies as saviors. While I happen to agree with them in principal, we can’t forget that they represent a wealthy special interest. I realize that’s not a popular position to take, but that doesn’t make it not true.

    Disclaimer – I work for NBCUniversal. While I have a mind and opinions of my own, I realize highly relevant to note my employer. Take it for what its worth.

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  • http://twitter.com/lisadeisenberg Lisa Eisenberg

    Thank you so much for taking the time to explain what this is! I’ve been researching and nothing has broken it down as well as you did.

    Tam is absolutely correct. It is very scary that our internet could turn into the censorship-ridden internet of China. By no means do I think that most content providers would agree with this move and I am quite surprised that this has moved along as far as it has.

    One of the greatest things about the internet (at least in America) is the utmost freedom of speech; and with SOPA, we would be creating unnecessary blockades to this freedeom as well as potentially withdrawing valuable content since it may be deemed “unapproved” prior to even reaching the masses.

    This is quite serious and I am signing the petition right now. Thank you Rosie for the great article!

  • http://www.php-web-host.com/ John

    Hi there… I’m not an American, but this was an interesting read anyway.

    What I would love some clarity on is why you say that SOPA would cause conflicts with DNS servers? I’m unclear on how content can do that???

    @twitter-14452050:disqus : I hear you (and I do empathize. I work as a software developer, so I know what its like to have your creation copied and distributed to all without any dues!). Still, here’s a question: What if the media houses simply left the content on youtube? To continue with the example above, I have never heard of Family guy. Maybe if I came across it on youtube, I’d really enjoy it, then perhaps I’d start watching it on TV, or I might actually buy the series on DVD. That seems like a win-win to me, and I’m sure this scenario is pretty close to what happens in reality?

    John

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  • http://twitter.com/rosiesiman rosiesiman

    Hi Ben!

    Thanks for the comment here and for the post over on your blog. Apologies for the delayed response – Have been vacationing sans internet for once ;)

    If I understand you, we share the same opinion that copyright infringement has to be dealt with and that SOPA just isn’t the way to properly deal with it.

    As far as what the right solution is, I’m not sure. I haven’t studied copyright law or IP law – And really, I hadn’t even known what SOPA was until I started researching the day before I wrote the article. I’d actually argue that one of the big problems with SOPA right now is too many people who aren’t especially qualified are sharing their opinions as if they are. 

    In my dream world… I’d love to see some of the big supporters of SOPA actually invest some time and money into understanding it. I’d like to think if they are so wildly successful in their own right, they’d have people on staff or consultants they could hire who would be considered experts. And I’d love to see these big companies collaborate with technology experts and work together on a solution. 

    Thanks again for adding to the discussion!

  • http://twitter.com/rosiesiman rosiesiman

    Thanks for your kind words, Lisa! Following you on Twitter now! 

  • http://twitter.com/rosiesiman rosiesiman

    Hi John!

    Sorry for the delayed response – I was vacationing without internet :)RE DNS: Here’s a great article on Forbes which talks about the DNS servers: http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2012/01/09/reddit-founder-dns-hacker-and-other-sopa-critics-to-address-congress/As I understand it, conflicts would be created because corporations would be able to blacklist/remove sites.As far as your comment re: leaving the content up… It’s tricky. I agree that it could be an amazing publicity tool (Look at all the musicians who are giving away their content for free because they want free publicity), but at the end of the day I think the choice should be that of whoever produced the content. 

    Thanks for your comment!

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  • http://twitter.com/JGoldsborough JGoldsborough

    Wow, Rosie. Great analysis of SOPA here. Going to share via my blog and with our #pr20chat crowd during tomorrow’s chat. Thanks for all the insight.

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  • Zac.M

    My problem is it affects the whole world as a lot of english content comes from the u.s. Also as you said monitoring a website like youtube would cost too much money even for a company like google.

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