Computing Columnist: SOPA
If you've not already heard of it, you owe it to yourself as a netizen to get up to speed on SOPA, the "Stop Internet Piracy Act." Like many well-intentioned bills, this one has a reasonable purpose, but executes it in what one reviewer called a "draconian" fashion.
The issue isn't simple. As we all know, there are many, many websites, particularly foreign sites, that offer pirated copies of music and movies that can be downloaded via "torrents," or little packages of data that take a movie, for example, break it into little bits, disperse it, and reassemble the bits and pieces once they're downloaded to your computer. This technique makes it very difficult to "find" the perpetrator, and hold anyone accountable for piracy.
According to money.cnn.com, however, "Opponents say SOPA -- and a similar bill called the Protect IP Act that is making its way through the Senate -- effectively promotes censorship.If SOPA passes, copyright holders would be able to complain to law enforcement officials and get websites shut down. The law would also force intermediaries like search engines and payment processors to withhold their services from targeted websites."
Interestingly, the bills don't just apply to movies and music, but to other things like auto parts, drugs, and infant formula.
The bit that has people concerned isn't the idea that a website offering stolen property, or counterfeit goods, shouldn't be targeted and shut down - to the extent that the U.S. has jurisdiction to do so - it's the notion that any site offering links to such sites can be censored, and that domains can be, in essence, blocked. So, as in China, Google can't return a full set of results when I do a search; Facebook can't post my link to a funny video because there is - or might be - something on that site that Miramax doesn't like.
In one sense, particularly the entertainment providers may be shooting themselves in the foot. When I listen to a song posted on blip.fm and "blip" it to my Facebook friends, and they like it - they just might buy it, or certainly might discover talent they didn't know existed before. On the other hand, as a writer, I fully appreciate the need to protect intellectual property, and to be sure that artists are compensated for the work that they do.
The problem with the acts as written is the broad brush approach: if Wikileaks publishes copyright material, demanding that that material be removed is a first remedy. Shutting down Wikileaks is a difficult, but appropriate second step. What these bills propose, however, is that the U.S. government would have the right to block any site linking to the infringing site. You can imagine where that could lead. Sites like Twitter, Google, Reddit, Kickstarter, Tumblr, Mozilla, Yahoo, AOL, eBay, Zynga, Facebook, and several other sites have spoken out in opposition of SOPA. In other words, those sites whose purpose is social networking - sharing info and ideas - feel the most threatened.
As one friend of mine is fond of saying, "I don't have any answers," because I do think the piracy issue isn't small and it isn't going to go away. So my free speech side and my protect the artist side are in full cognitive dissonance mode. I'm not convinced that either of these bills is the right way to solve the problem, as censorship has never served "we the people" very well.