SOPA and PIPA Explained

SOPA and PIPA are copyright bills that are coming up to a vote soon in US Congress. SOPA – the “Stop Online Piracy Act” – is the House version, and PIPA – the “Protect IP Act” – is the Senate version. You may have heard SOPA and PIPA mentioned in the news recently. You may also have noticed that over 7,000 sites around the Internet were inaccessible yesterday (January 18). Those 7,000 sites were protesting by self-censoring, and yesterday alone over 7 million Americans called their representatives in opposition to the SOPA and PIPA.

Someone asked me to provide a non-technical explanation of these bills, to understand what is at stake.

SOPA and PIPA are intended to protect copyrighted materials and stop piracy (as their names would suggest). However, what they do to combat piracy is to create a national censorship system. On the frontside of the Internet, search engines like Google and Bing would be required to remove listings for any sites accused of containing links to infringing material. On the backside of the Internet, servers known as nameservers would be required to block access to any accused site. A nameserver is the technology that tells your web browser where to go when you type “google.com”. This level of nameserver-level blocking is already prominent in countries like China and Iran.

An earlier copyright law from 1998, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (or DMCA), required copyright owners to request that material be removed from websites and services. In SOPA, that requirement would be directed to the websites themselves. All websites and services would be required to immediately remove links to copyrighted materials, or else their domain would be blacklisted and their site shutdown. Most user-generated content sites such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Vimeo and Flickr would be forced to shutdown, as it would be technically unfeasible to keep up with enforcement on such high traffic sites. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google+ would also likely not be able to continue operations, as any post or comment that contained a link to copyrighted material could potentially shut down the entire site.

Protecting copyright is important, but far-reaching censorship isn’t the way.¬†We can take action and prevent these bills from becoming law. Wikipedia has provided a ZIP lookup tool to point you to the online contact forms for all your representatives.

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Philip Cain

Ninja Master of the Series of Tubes, musician, audio engineer and geek. More about Philip...