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SOPA Controversy Explained

Jan 17 06:00

SOPA and PIPA: Just the Facts

SOPA and PIPA: Just the Facts
The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act are getting more negative attention, as major websites such as Wikipedia plan to protest the bills with blackouts on Wednesday. Even Google will join the action, with a link on its homepage explaining why the company opposes the legislation.

But what are SOPA and PIPA, exactly, and why are tech luminaries lambasting legislation aimed at stamping out copyright infringement? Read on for a full explanation.

SOPA and PIPA: The Basics

Media companies are always looking for new ways to fight piracy. They've tried suing individual users, getting Internet service providers to take action against subscribers, and working with the U.S. government to shut down domains based in the United States. But none of those actions can stop overseas websites such as The Pirate Bay and MegaUpload from infringing copyrights, or prevent Internet users from accessing those sites.

Enter SOPA, in the U.S. House of Representatives, and PIPA, in the U.S. Senate. Both bills are aimed at foreign websites that infringe copyrighted material. The bills are commonly associated with media piracy, but may also apply to counterfeit consumer goods and medication.

Originally, both bills provided two methods for fighting copyright infringement on foreign websites. In one method, the U.S. Department of Justice could seek court orders requiring Internet service providers to block the domain names of infringing sites. For example, Comcast could prevent its customers from accessing thepiratebay.org, although the underlying IP address would still be reachable. This ISP-blocking provision was a major concern among Internet security experts, and both SOPA and PIPA have dropped it.

The other tool would allow rights holders to seek court orders requiring payment providers, advertisers, and search engines to stop doing business with an infringing site. In other words, rights holders would be able to request that funding be cut off from an infringing site, and that search links to that site be removed. The site in question would have five days to appeal any action taken.

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Although the House and Senate bills are similar, SOPA is the more extreme of the two. It defines a "foreign infringing site" as any site that is "committing or facilitating" copyright infringement, whereas PIPA is limited to sites with "no significant use other than" copyright infringement. More details on SOPA and PIPA are available through the Library of Congress website.

Arguments for and Against SOPA and PIPA

SOPA and PIPA: Just the Facts
Opponents of SOPA and PIPA believe that neither piece of legislation does enough to protect against false accusations. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues, provisions in the bill grant immunity to payment processors and ad networks that cut off sites based on a reasonable belief of infringement, so even if claims turn out to be false, only the site suffers. "The standard for immunity is incredibly low and the potential for abuse is off the charts," says the EFF.

Meanwhile, sites that host user-generated content will be under pressure to closely monitor users' behavior. That monitoring already happens on larger sites such as YouTube, but it could be a huge liability for startups, the EFF argues.

Some progressive pundits have argued that media companies are trying to legislate their way out of what's really a business-model problem. "As we've seen over and over again, the most successful (by far) 'attack' against piracy is awesome new platforms that give customers what they want, such as Spotify and Netflix," TechDirt's Mike Masnick writes.

SOPA and PIPA supporters argue that prophecies of a broken Internet are overblown. Cary Sherman, CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, writes that SOPA clearly defines infringing sites based on Supreme Court holdings and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, and requires rights holders to follow a strict set of rules when trying to get payment cut off to an infringing site. False claims, Sherman argues, "can result in damages, including costs and attorneys' fees."

Sherman also points out that previous actions against infringing sites, such as the MGM vs. Grokster case in 2005, triggered similar doomsday predictions from the tech industry, yet digital music innovation has flourished since then.

Who's for SOPA and PIPA, and Who's Against?

SOPA and PIPA: Just the Facts
Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is the author of SOPA, which is backed by 31 cosponsors in the House. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) wrote PIPA, which has 40 cosponsors in the Senate. ProPublica has a visualized list of supporters in both the House and Senate.

The White House has expressed concerns about the bills in their current state, writing in a statement that "any effective legislation should reflect a wide range of stakeholders, including everyone from content creators to the engineers that build and maintain the infrastructure of the Internet."

As for outside parties, the list of SOPA supporters consists mostly of media companies, including record labels, TV networks, movie studios, and book publishers. Some companies with an interest in fighting sales of other counterfeit goods, such as beauty-product maker Revlon and pharmaceutical company Pfizer, also appear on the list.

Opposition to SOPA and PIPA is strong in the tech sector. An open letter to Washington speaking out against the legislation was signed by founders of Craigslist, eBay, Google, Mozilla, Twitter, and Wikipedia, among others.

In the middle are companies at the intersection of media and technology. Many video game publishers have stayed silent on the matter while their trade group, the Entertainment Software Association, supports the bills. The Business Software Alliance originally supported the bill, but withdrew its support after deciding that the legislation went too far. As for Apple and Microsoft, which are both BSA members, the former has not come out publicly for or against SOPA or PIPA, while the latter now says that it opposes SOPA "as currently drafted."

Where Are SOPA and PIPA Now?

Both bills have taken a hit in the last week, as their authors have decided to remove the provisions that require Internet service providers to block the domain names of infringing sites. SOPA, which has yet to pass out of the House Judiciary Committee, is reportedly stalled, as lawmakers continue to work on the bill. Representative Darrell Issa (R-California) has proposed an alternative bill that is far more narrow in its focus.

Voting on PIPA, however, is scheduled to begin in the Senate on January 24.

UPDATE: (2pm ET 1/18) Now two U.S. Senators are withdrawing their sponsorships of PIPA. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, wrote on Facebook that although he has a strong interest in stopping piracy, "we must do this while simultaneously promoting an open, dynamic Internet environment that is ripe for innovation and promotes new technologies." Senator Roy Blunt, of Missouri, also bailed on the bill, writing on Facebook that "the Protect IP Act is flawed as it stands today, and I cannot support it moving forward."

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Jan 18 05:16

SOPA Alternative Bill Introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives

Lawmakers opposing the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act Wednesday introduced alternative legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, and 24 co-sponsors introduced the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade (OPEN) Act late Wednesday, the same day many websites went dark in opposition to SOPA and the Protect IP Act, a similar bill in the Senate.

The OPEN Act would allow copyright holders to file complaints about copyright infringement at foreign websites with the U.S. International Trade Commission, which would investigate the complaints and decide whether U.S. payment processors and online advertising networks should be required to cut off funding. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, introduced a Senate version of the OPEN Act in December.

"OPEN is a targeted, effective solution to the problem of foreign, rogue websites stealing from American artists and innovators," Issa said in a statement. "Today's Internet blackout has underscored the flawed approach taken by SOPA and PIPA to the real problem of intellectual property infringement. OPEN is a smarter way to protect taxpayers' rights while protecting the Internet."

By contrast, SOPA would allow the U.S. Department of Justice and copyright holders to seek court orders requiring payment processors and ad networks to stop doing business with foreign websites accused by the plaintiffs of copyright infringement. SOPA would also allow the DOJ to seek court orders requiring search engines and possibly other websites to stop linking to sites it accuses of infringing copyright.

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Jan 18 08:12

Two SOPA Co-Sponsors Drop Support for Bill

As several prominent websites protest the Stop Online Piracy Act with blackouts, two co-sponsors of the bill have dropped their support.

Two SOPA Co-Sponsors Drop Support for Bill
Benjamin Quayle
Representative Benjamin Quayle of Arizona has had his name withdrawn from SOPA's list of co-sponsors. Representative Lee Terry of Nebraska plans to remove his name as well, according to the Omaha World-Herald.

Charles Isom, a spokesman for Terry, said the congressman was dropping support for SOPA because of negative sentiment from free speech advocates, civil rights groups and tech companies, among others. Terry had originally co-sponsored the bill because of concerns about piracy's effect on the economy.

SOPA, and the similar Protect Intellectual Property Act in the Senate, would give the U.S. attorney general power to make payment networks and ad networks cut off funding to overseas websites accused of piracy, and make search engines stop listing the site. The bills originally could require Internet service providers to block domain names of infringing sites, but those provisions are now being removed. Critics have argued that the bills define infringing websites too broadly, amounting to censorship powers for media companies and the government.

(RELATED: The facts on SOPA and PIPA.)

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Jan 19 01:26

SOPA, PIPA Opponents Celebrate, but Say Work Isn't Done

A day after an estimated 10,000 websites went dark and more than 7 million people signed a Google.com petition opposing two controversial copyright enforcement bills, opponents of the bills said there's more work to do.

The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act aren't dead, with the U.S. Senate headed toward an initial vote on PIPA Tuesday, opponents of the two bills said Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has scheduled a cloture vote -- a vote to override a threatened filibuster of PIPA -- for Tuesday, even though about 20 senators have announced opposition this week, including six who had co-sponsored the bill.

Reid talked about senators drafting an amended version of the bill, but no text has been released yet. It's unclear at this point whether backers of PIPA will get the 60 votes needed to override the filibuster threatened by two Republicans and two Democratic senators. Several senators, including some co-sponsors of PIPA, have called on the Senate to slow down.

With the vote still scheduled, the work against the two bills is not over, said Michael McGeary, a strategist at startup consultancy Hattery Labs. Wednesday's protest was "not the first day and not the last day," he said at an anti-PIPA briefing Thursday. "We're here for the duration."

Opponents of PIPA, including the Consumer Electronics Association and NetCoalition, urged senators to delay the vote and return to the drawing board. Any amended version of the bill offered before Tuesday would be the result of a "backroom" deal, and Wednesday's massive online protests seemed focused not only on the content of the bills, but also the rushed attempts to pass PIPA and SOPA, said Mike Masnick, founder of the TechDirt blog.

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Jan 18 05:39

Mozilla, Firefox Join Anti-SOPA Strike

Mozilla, the open-source organization responsible for Firefox, joined other major technology companies today to protest anti-piracy legislation by blackening the browser's home page.

From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET, Firefox's default home page -- essentially a search field for Google -- will change from its usual white background with the Firefox logo to a blacked-out version displaying a modified graphic emblazoned with "Stop Censorship."

Meanwhile, the English language versions of Mozilla's sites -- mozilla.com and mozilla.org -- will redirect visitors to an "action page" asking for their support in stopping what it called "Internet blacklist legislation."

Mozilla and an estimated 7,000 other sites, including Google , Wikipedia and Reddit, went on a "virtual strike" today to voice their opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), legislation being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, respectively.

Some of the sites went completely dark -- Wikipedia blocked its English content , replacing it with an anti-SOPA/PIPA call to arms -- but others, like Mozilla, used milder methods. Google, for example, placed a black rectangle over the area where it normally positions its logo or specialty "doodles."

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Jan 19 06:17

Were SOPA/PIPA Protests a Success? The Results Are In

New York City demonstration against SOPA/PIPA, outside the Manhattan offices of Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who co-sponsored the Senate PIPA bill. Photo Credit: IDGNS New York
Wednesday's online protests against two online antipiracy bills currently before Congress are being hailed as a success after sites such as BoingBoing, Reddit and Wikipedia temporarily shut down to oppose the Stop Online Piracy (SOPA) and Protect IP (PIPA) Acts. As a result, more than 162 million people saw the protest message on Wikipedia, 18 senators have backed away from the proposed legislation, and 4.5 million people signed a petition against the acts.

The New York Times called Wednesday's online activism, that also included messages of protest from Craigslist, Google and Mozilla, "a political coming of age for the tech industry." While the Motion Picture Association of America's Chairman and CEO (and former U.S. Senator) Chris Dodd said on Tuesday the protests were an "abuse of power" that turned users into the tech industry's "corporate pawns" (PDF).

Alexis Ohanian, cofounder of Reddit, expressing his dismay at SOPA/PIPA, at a new York City demonstration against the pending legislation. Photo Credit: IDGNS New York
Many technology companies, especially Web-based companies, oppose SOPA and PIPA arguing the bills will undermine the free and open web. Critics say the legislation empowers the government and private parties to censor the Web for American Internet users by requiring search engines and Internet Service Providers to block access to websites accused of copyright infringement.

Now that the lights are back on at Wikipedia, BoingBoing is publishing, and Reddit users are once again commenting on cute puppy pictures here's a look at the fallout from Wednesday's protests and where the debate goes from here.

New York City demonstration against SOPA/PIPA. Photo Credit: IDGNS New York
-4.5 million people signed Google's anti-SOPA/PIPA petition, according to the Los Angeles Times

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Jan 18 08:10

Groups Launch Campaign Against Lawmakers Supporting SOPA, PIPA

Two activist groups, one liberal and one conservative, have joined together in a campaign to defeat U.S. lawmakers supporting two controversial copyright enforcement bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act.

The campaign, launched about 9 p.m. EST Tuesday, had collected more than 37,000 signatures as of 10:15 a.m. Wednesday. The activist groups, the left-leaning Demand Progress and the right-leaning Don't Censor the Net, ask supporters to pledge to work against any candidates that support SOPA or PIPA during the 2012 elections.

"In 2012, I will only support candidates who stand for Internet freedom and who oppose the PROTECT IP Act and SOPA," says the pledge on the VotefortheNet.com site. "I will work against any candidate, of any party, who votes to censor and stifle the Internet."

Representatives of several lawmakers who support SOPA or PIPA didn't return messages seeking comments on the campaign. A spokeswoman for Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and lead sponsor of PIPA, declined to comment, and spokeswomen for Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and lead sponsor of SOPA, did not return a message.

VotefortheNet.com asks supporters to donate to four senators who have threatened to filibuster PIPA. Those four are Democrats Ron Wyden of Oregon and Maria Cantwell of Washington and Republicans Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jerry Moran of Kansas.

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Jan 18 12:10

Wikipedia, Craigslist, Other Sites Black out Against SOPA at Midnight

Wikipedia and some other Internet companies blacked out their websites in one way or the other early Wednesday in protest against controversial legislation in the U.S.

Google blacked out its logo and posted a message on its home page that said "Tell Congress: Please don't censor the Web!". The message, which was visible to users of google.com outside the U.S. as well, linked to a petition opposing the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate.

More websites are expected to register their protest by 8:00 am Eastern Time on Wednesday.

Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger, which runs humor websites, for example, said in a Twitter message that his company sites would have a blackout from 8.00 am.

Wikimedia Foundation said on Monday that the Wikipedia community had decided to black out its English version to users worldwide to protest against SOPA and PIPA.

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Jan 19 01:17

Hollywood Disappointed With President Obama's SOPA Stance

Hollywood is reportedly not too pleased with President Obama after the White House wrote a letter criticizing elements of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA).

Several studio heads, quoted anonymously by Deadline, say they may refuse to give more donations to President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

"We just feel very let down by the administration and Obama for not supporting us," one studio chief reportedly said.

(RELATED: The facts on SOPA and PIPA)

The White House released a statement on Saturday saying that any anti-piracy legislation should avoid security risks, guard against censorship, and protect innovation. Although the statement didn't oppose or endorse any specific legislation, it insinuated that the current House and Senate bills were problematic.

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