SOPA and its Discontents

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few weeks you have probably heard about a bill currently pending in the US House called the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA for those who love acronyms. If you’ve been extremely busy at the close of the semester and have acquired the attention span of a hummingbird over the past few weeks like me, you probably haven’t read too much in depth about SOPA. But as a law librarian, you should read up on it because it’s about the Internet, and the Internet has become kind of important to our jobs over the last 15 years or so. I originally meant to give a short breakdown of everything you need to know about SOPA in this post because I haven’t seen it spelled out succinctly and without bias anywhere. That was until about 2pm Friday afternoon when Brad Plumer over at the Washington Post blogged this little nugget. See? Isn’t the Internet great? If you clicked the link and read through his post, you should be fairly well caught up on SOPA.

Here’s a short recap (with bias) in case you already forgot or didn’t feel like reading his post:

  • What’s the main intent of SOPA? To stop the facilitation of copyright infringement online. The bill’s sponsors say it’s to primarily block foreign file sharing sites like Pirate Bay, which explains why my undergraduate workers are so vehemently opposed to it. Just spend the one dollar for that Ke$ha song on iTunes guys, it’s worth not getting a virus on your laptop.
  • Who’s for it? The guys who ruined my college years by killing Napster- the Recording Industry of America, the Motion Picture Industry of America, and lots of lobbyists officials in our federal government.
  • Who’s against it? Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Wikipedia, Twitter, Youtube, Ebay….you know, the first through eighth (not including Amazon) most popular websites in the United States according to Alexa.com.
  • What could it do? Law professors, our primarily clientele, believe it could infringe on free speech. Tech experts think it could cripple the Internet by giving the Justice Department power to shut down a site before it has a chance to defend itself of a copyright infringement claim. It would make an Internet start-up think twice about well, starting up. Both of those consequences are essentially un-American. The Justice Department part is particularly terrifying in a Winston Smith sitting in his cubicle trying not to have bad thoughts sort of way.
  • How is it going to play out? We don’t know. SOPA seems to have a lot of support in the House right now and the debate will continue in the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday after hitting a minor delay Friday in the form of a verbal/Twitter slap fight between Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa)

I for one, find it hard to believe that any bill with such opposition from the likes of Google and Facebook would have much traction in our Age of Technopoly. Sure, the RIAA took down Napster a decade ago, but Napster was a Rebel Alliance X-wing fighter compared to the Google Death Star. If Google gets tired of our government’s restrictive Internet policies, I envision Sergey Brin and Larry Page throwing a dart at a world map playing the game, “Which Country Wants a New Sponsor?” and moving all of its operations to wherever the dart lands.

What everyone, except for Pirate Bay enthusiasts, can agree on is that copyright infringement and online piracy is bad, and something must be done about it. Apparently it’s gotten quite out of hand and expensive if you listen to the proponents of the bill. The biggest problem I see with SOPA is its possible unintended consequences. The language of the bill is vague enough to give the Justice Department Thor’s Hammer to combat online piracy, when a surgical tool targeting the wrongdoers would suffice.

That surgical tool was introduced last week in the House in the form of the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade bill (whose acronym is inexplicably “OPEN”). What OPEN would do is put intellectual property disputes between U.S. companies and foreign parties in the hands of the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC). This only makes sense because one of ITC’s primary functions is to investigate intellectual property disputes in regards to imports. OPEN has the backing of our Internet overlords Google, Facebook, AOL…. (AOL?) because it would target the offenders instead of shutting down the interlocutors like search engines and social media sites. OPEN would soften SOPA by making it so the ITC would investigate piracy claims instead of just allowing the Justice Department to use an Internet “off switch”. The ITC could then make a cease-and-desist order and only then bring in Big Brother the Department of Justice for an injunction.

What are your thoughts on SOPA? On OPEN? On the overabundance of acronyms in this debate?

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