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FAQ: What the SOPA soap opera is all about

Concerns about censorship overblown, backers of controversial bill say

November 18, 2011 05:07 AM ET

Computerworld - The recently introduced Stop Online Piracy Act has ignited a firestorm of protest from numerous quarters. Many of those opposed to the bill see in it a cynical attempt by the entertainment industry to impose a sort of Internet censorship regime. Supporters downplay that criticism and say the bill is needed to counter the theft of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of U.S. IP annually. Here's what the big fight is all about.

What is SOPA? SOPA is an acronym for the Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R. 3261). It is a bill designed to make it much harder for rogue offshore sites to sell counterfeit U.S. goods, including fake prescription drugs and copyrighted movies and music. Such sites are believed to be causing tens of billions of dollars in losses annually to U.S. companies.

If stopping rogue offshore websites is a good thing, why are so many people upset? Because they believe the proposed cure is worse than the illness. Many fear that SOPA will give content owners and IP owners too much power to go after websites that they deem are dedicated to or contributing to copyright theft or sale of counterfeit goods.

Why do they feel that way? Primarily because of Section 103 of the bill, which deals with a market-based system designed to prevent U.S. funding of sites seen as dedicated to the theft of U.S. property.

Try that again. Basically, Sec. 103 will give the owner of any intellectual property the right to pursue private action against websites that they deem are infringing their rights. Under SOPA, IP rights holders will be able to ask payment providers such as MasterCard and PayPal to shut off services to allegedly infringing sites. They would also be able to ask Internet advertising networks to stop providing ads to the websites.

Don't IP owners need some a court order before they ask ISPs and the others to do this? Not really. ISPs will get five days to use all "technical feasible and reasonable" measures to voluntarily comply with the request. Those that do will get full immunity from any liability. Those that don't can be forced to do so under court order.

Is this the only concern with the bill? SOPA also would allow the government to ask ISPs to use DNS blocking, filtering and other "feasible and reasonable" methods to cut off access to foreign infringing websites from the U.S. It would let the government order search engine companies like Google to disable links to infringing sites in search engine results and ask payment providers to stop services to targeted sites. Foreign sites subject to such actions are those that would have been liable for criminal prosecution in the U.S if the site were based in the U.S.

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