If today's your first day back on the Internet after a month-long hiatus, you're probably wondering what the hell is going on with Google and Wikipedia; and why everyone keeps throwing around four-letter acronyms on Facebook and Twitter. Here's why: Today a number of the top Internet companies—Reddit, Wikipedia, Google, and others (go to SOPA Strike to see the full list of companies)—have decided to boycott two bills making the rounds in congress. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) were both introduced last year and have been gaining momentum in the past weeks. Meant to give companies more power in fighting online piracy and the sale of counterfeit goods, the bill, which the Obama Administration has all but rebuked, have the potential to change the Internet as we know it. How? Read on to find out.
What is SOPA & PIPA?
At its core, the Stop Online Piracy Act is an anit-piracy bill making its way throughout Congress. Introduced by Republican House Judiciary Committee Chair Lamar Smith on October 26, 2011, the bill calls for intellectual property (IP) owners (movie studios, record labels) to have the ability to shut down any foreign site that violates their intellectual property and copyrights. The Protect IP Act, SOPA's Senate equivalent, is meant to give the same power to companies that make physical goods that are being counterfeited and sold over the Internet. The bill's supporters claim that both bills are aimed at foreign companies that are illegally making money using U.S.-made goods.
How will this affect me?
If passed, SOPA and PIPA will give corporations the power to censor the Internet as they see fit. If Sony Pictures discovers that a certain website is allowing users to download The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it can demand that the site's ISP block access to users, that Google remove the site's links from its search results, and that companies stop running their ads on the site. Or, if Sony realizes that a certain website is allowing users to download music from one of its artists illegally, it can have that site shut down.
But can't they already do that? Look at what happened to OnSmash.
True. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), there are laws on the books to that make it a crime to pirate copyrighted material. We've recently seen the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) go after a number of websites it believed was pirating copyrighted material or selling counterfeit goods in the name of the DMCA. However, many of the seizures conducted by ICE were of dubious legality and are currently under investigation. With, SOPA and PIPA, there will be no need for legal recourse because it will all be legal. What's more, the copyright holders will only need to have it on "good faith" that certain websites are violating their rights. All of which could lead to an Internet Black List: A list of websites created by IP owners that are believed to be breaking the law.
Damn, that's crazy. People will figure out a way around it, though, right?
It is crazy. And you're right, we're sure the legions of hackers will figure out a way to circumvent whatever happens, just as The Pirate Bay has been able to do time and time again. However there's a provision in SOPA that will allow the government to shut down any site that gives users a way to go around the blocks and censorships. Also, as Gizmodo points out, if you were to send out a tweet or email that links to a torrent site with illegal content , Twitter and your email provider will be legally obligated to delete the tweet. And that will go for any social media outlet. Free speech will grind to a halt.
What can I do?
The bills are scheduled to stand for vote on January 24th. You can contact your congressman or congresswoman and let 'em know that you oppose the bill. There are a number of websites, like American Censorship and SOPA Strike, that make it easy for you to do so.