For those of you furious today that an argument over the precise origins of an obscure Klingon genealogy cannot be traced through a simple Wikipedia search and are unsure why that’s the case, we have assembled a quick guide to the pending legislation that has forced many of your favorite high traffic web sites into self-imposed exile.
The bill is called SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and if we are to believe the rhetoric from both sides of the U.S. House and Senate, it will once and for all resolve any outstanding issues we have with internet piracy. Nevermind that it is a shot over the bow of both free enterprise and speech, or that it is a reversion to the status quo by the old dogs of industry intent on stunting innovation and independent growth. This is a quick fix, a Big Brotheresque cover-all, and so long as it meets our needs (it doesn’t), free and immediate access to information should be considered a small price to pay.
But we digress. You can form your own opinions.
The Meat and Potatoes: The broad and ill-defined language of the SOPA would allow the Attorney General to order ISPs (internet service providers) to block foreign-based sites suspected of housing and distributing pirated content. It would further require search engines to delist these sites from their indexes and ban all advertising and payment services on any site in question. All this would be done at the behest and whim of the copyright holder who, if we are to understand the wording of the bill, need not provide any support of his or her claim.
Foreign vs. Domestic: Granted sites like Wikipedia, Reddit and Wired would be considered domestic sites, geographical boundaries are often, if not by definition, always transcended online. Despite insistence by proponents of the bill that it is not designed to target domestic sites, the complexity of the foreign/domestic relationship combined with SOPA’s dangerously vague language could open the door for absolute power to corrupt absolutely. Should SOPA regulations be turned on domestic sites, we might be headed for an internet blackout far worse and more permanent than the one we are witnessing today.
Sure, But Does It Work: Short answer? No. SOPA is a dust under the rug tactic not actually aimed at eliminating internet piracy but rather censoring users from accessing it. Websites hosting the content will still be live, the content will still be available should some super-hacker realize he need only search under a foreign domain name system (think .UK) but users will not be able to access it through U.S. based sites. It’s a strategy that has been hailed by dictatorships in Syria, Iran and China but until now has been relatively unknown in U.S.
Who Suffers: We all do: user based sites like Wikipedia and Reddit have to backtrack and censor all potential threats and create infrastructure to limit their users from posting any in the future; internet start-ups will be forced to invest limited time and money into conforming to SOPA provisions; and a little thing we like to call free speech won’t be quite as free as it was.
What Happens: The online sector is one of the few growth sectors left in America; lobbing ill-defined limitations like SOPA onto it is the equivalent of a trade embargo on a key import coming into a country. Growth, in this case innovation, will suffer. Rather than push forward, either in an effort to eradicate internet piracy or invest more energy into learning how to tax and sell it, overseer bodies like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have lobbied congress as a weapon. They've chosen to adopt the classic ‘hear no evil, see no evil’ approach so common in companies who refuse to learn how the 'magic' of the internet works.
Fortunately, SOPA has no power over us now, so you can see all these beautiful women uncensored in the Cyber Club.