Why SOPA deserves a closer look

Seldom has a piece of proposed Internet legislation evoked as much as outcry and debate as the Stop Online Piracy Act. Over the last few weeks, hundreds of consumer and technology groups, industry associations, trade unions, free speech groups, security experts, academics and Web companies have ranged themselves on both sides of the debate.

The House Judiciary Committee today held an important hearing on the bill and even that is coming in for some scathing criticism with groups such as the Computer and Communications Industry Association calling the hearing heavily lopsided in favor of SOPA's supporters.

 SOPA (H.R. 3261)  is sponsored by Lamar Smith (R-VA), John Conyers (D-MI), Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Howard Berman (D-CA) and several co-sponsors. It would basically allow content and IP owners (read Hollywood and the RIAA) to obtain court orders requiring ISPs, search engine companies and others to use DNS blocking and filtering to block access to sites that are deemed as selling counterfet U.S goods and copyrighted content.

Content owners will also have the right to ask advertising networks and payment services such as MasterCard or PayPal to stop providing services to sites that are deemed as rogue sites. The service providers will receive full immunity for any actions taken at the request of the copyright or IP owner.

Supporters of the bill insist that it is needed to combat the unfettered theft of U.S copyrighted content and IP by "rogue" foreign sites. They argue that such theft is costing the U.S. tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in annual losses. The sale of counterfeit goods, which include spurious prescription drugs, also poses a serious health and safety issue for U.S. consumers. They insist that the law is targeted at particularly egregious offshore offenders that are outside the reach of U.S. law enforcement and not at U.S. based sites.

Opponents of SOPA argue that it will give U.S. content owners a powerful new tool they can use to take private action against not just rogue foreign sites but legitimate U.S. ones as well. Currently, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) grants immunity to website owners for content posted on their site by users. So while YouTube can be asked to remove infringing content, a copyright owner cannot hold the site directly responsible for the content.

With SOPA, content owners can effectively label an entire site as a rogue site and have payment providers and advertisers cut off services to the site. It would allow them to do an end run around the Safe Harbor provisions built into the DMCA.

In their hurry to make their concerns heard, both sides are no doubt playing up issues that support their point of view while downplaying or glossing over some of the less favorable ones.  That's a pity because both appear to have some valid points.

  • If SOPA is not the answer, what is the best way to deal with offshore rogue sites that are dedicated to selling and profiting from sale of copyrighted content and counterfeit U.S. goods?
  • If SOPA is targeted mainly at rogue foreign sites, why does it leave the door so widely open for similar action to be taken against U.S. websites?  What precludes a content owner from asking a PayPal or a MasterCard to shut off services to a U.S.-based website?
  • What will SOPA do to the DMCA's Safe Harbor provisions? Will U.S. site owners such as a YouTube or a Flickr still receive immunity for content that users post on their websites? Or, will they be liable?
  • What legal redress does an accused website have?

Such questions are important to address, especially given the mutually suspicious relationship that exists between the content industry and technology companies.  After all, as NetCoalition, a group of leading Web companies put it in a statement today, the groups pushing for SOPA are the same ones that once viewed the VCR and cassette tapes as a threat to their future.

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