January 18 2012
You may have noticed something different about the internet today. Many of the web’s most popular sites, including Google, Reddit, and Wikipedia, are participating in a protest against two anti-piracy bills currently working their way through Congress. The Protect IP/Stop Online Piracy Acts (Senate and House versions, respectively) have caused a storm of controversy among the web’s tech-elite, who warn that the bills violate the protections of free speech, and even "break" the internet as we know it. So what’s the deal with these bills?
Both bills aim to curb piracy (both of digital media and real-world products like sports jerseys or medications) by foreign websites like The Pirate Bay. The original drafts of both bills contained language that would require Internet service providers to block users from accessing the web domains of sites accused of infringement (the details are a bit technical, but Cato’s Jim Harper provides an explanation in layman’s terms). This domain-blocking provision was a huge concern among internet techies, who warned that such a law would effectively break the way the internet has worked for the last two decades. As a result, the blocking provisions have been pulled from each bill, though some experts believe they will reappear in later legislation.
What really has netizens up in arms is the language in SOPA that could result in entire websites being taken down or cut off from advertisers or search engines over an accusation (but crucially, not a conviction) that they “facilitate” piracy. This measure has been compared to using a flame-thrower to kill a mosquito. The measure puts the entire social web, in which ordinary users generate and post content, at risk of going down thanks to a few bad actors. The only way for a large site like Facebook or Twitter to avoid punishment would be for them to closely monitor every link or status that gets posted to their sites (and with over 200 million tweets per day, that’s an impossible task). These bills place a huge compliance burden on online businesses and could permanently choke entrpreneurship in a sector that's seen unmitigated growth since its inception. Piracy is a serious issue, but crippling one of the healthiest sectors of the economy isn't the proper response.
As problematic as SOPA and PIPA are for website owners, the bills also have serious implications for free speech online. As Julian Sanchez explains in this video from Cato, blocking or removing an entire web domain because of one potentially infringing statement amounts to censorship: