On SOPA, PIPA and the Internet Blackouts

Today, many websites are participating in a blackout inspired by the Stop Online Piracy Act ("SOPA", H.R.3261) and PROTECT IP Act ("PIPA", S.968) bills currently being considered by Congress. These two bills, which are very similar to one another, are intended to extend copyright protections and enable better defenses against copyright infringement by international websites. These bills have caused significant uproar among Internet companies and technologists, as they raise a number of concerns with regard to Internet freedom, censorship and security. Major Internet players that have announced their opposition to these bills include AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, imgur, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Reddit, Twitter, Wikipedia, Yahoo! and Zynga. Technology experts have also expressed concerns (PDF) over potential problems with the implementation of the bills' measures.

SOPA and PIPA are intended to give copyright holders the tools they need to bring down and block access to websites hosting copyright-infringing materials. While it is easy to see how blocking copyright-infringing websites would be desirable, concerns include that these tools may be too broad, that they may be abused, and that the burden on websites to avoid infringing or linking to infringers could be too great. Today's blackout is intended to raise awareness about these two bills. Visitors to Google will see a large black box over the Google logo, accompanied by a link to information placed on the homepage. Wikipedia has blocked access to most of its English-language pages. Reddit, imgur and others have completely gone dark, replacing their homepages with messages about these bills. Today's blackout is unprecedented in the history of the Internet.

Unanswered Questions

Could Google be expected to find and remove all of the infringing websites among the over one trillion URLs it has indexed, and to continue monitoring each and every one of them for new infringement? Many infringers are going to try hard to avoid scrutiny, and there is a very large grey area where it might be hard to decide what constitutes infringement. What happens when they accidentally identify false positives? When they miss some infringement? These are the concerns that search engines face. What about sites like Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia, which depend upon user-submitted content? They cannot possibly filter every single URL that passes through, and they could be deluged with takedown demands if they do not. The free flow of information and ideas that normally takes place on social networks would be stifled, and communities like Wikipedia that are driven by user contributions could be overburdened by the administrative demands. However legitimate websites might be forced to filter their content, we are facing a form of censorship never before seen on the Internet. In spite of whatever good intentions might be behind SOPA and PIPA, the burden they place on legitimate websites and the threat they present to the freedom of the Internet cannot be ignored.

The Danger to Small Businesses and Individuals

Small businesses and individuals running websites would be most vulnerable to unintended consequences of SOPA and PIPA. Even small websites, blogs and forums could be forced to censor content or face being shut down. Funding for small websites that host user-generated content, whether in the form of comments and discussions, videos, articles or anything else, would be harder to come by when those websites could be held liable for infringing content. Operators of such websites would also face an increased risk of lawsuits, justified or not, which could prove too expensive to fight. Other tools used by small businesses could also be endangered. Mailing lists, code repositories, VPNs and more could pose liability concerns.

The Need

Copyright infringement is an expensive problem for American businesses. Content producers and publishers lose a great deal of money to piracy every year. Estimates on the actual losses vary greatly, but "many billions" is a good guess. Many websites that host the infringing material are outside of the United States, often in places that do not offer strong protection for intellectual property. This presents a challenge for American businesses, as it can be impossible to sue the infringers or their hosting providers, and the Internet as it is does not offer a way to shut down these sites. SOPA and PIPA are intended to answer this need by giving copyright holders a way to cut infringing sites off from the traffic that sustains them. Most of the opponents of SOPA and PIPA recognize that defending intellectual property is important - they often depend upon it themselves. The objection is over how these bills propose to cut infringing sites off.

Google and other opponents of these bills do have an alternative in mind: the OPEN Act. The OPEN Act aims to cut off infringing sites by stopping the flow of money to them. Status SOPA has been temporarily halted in the House, with discussion expected to resume next month. PIPA is expected to go before the Senate on the 24th of January.

More Information

Electronic Frontier Foundation articles:

Protest Letters:

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