The US House of Representatives is considering a bill that many fear could have devastating effects on free speech. Designed to impede the accessibility of sites promoting intellectual piracy and counterfeit goods, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would give the US government unprecedented control of the Internet. This has many believing that SOPA would break the Internet as we know it.
At its heart, this act has only good intentions. Movie studios and music producers have struggled to maintain their copyrights in the digital age. In addition, many Americans lives have been put at risk by the purchase of counterfeit pharmaceuticals online.
The SOPA aims to protect copyrights, trademarks, and patents by allowing the US government to order search engines and hosting companies to stop allowing access to domains believed to be in violation of intellectual property law.
Will SOPA Stop Piracy?
Unfortunately, most of these sites operate outside the US, and therefore would not actually be shut down. Also, savvy shoppers will learn how to bypass domain names and access these websites directly through their IP addresses. Always, the game will evolve as the stakes escalate and criminals devise ways to circumvent new laws.
Third Party Accountability
Worse, the SOPA seeks to exert pressure on third party websites like social media sites, search engines, and web hosting companies to police content on their sites or risk their own domains being blacklisted in the US. Under current law, companies are asked to take down content that violates copyright, and they are considered in compliance when they do. Under the SOPA, they could risk reprisals for allowing the content to be there at all.
In order to protect their businesses, sites like Facebook and YouTube would have to verify that content is original before publishing on their domains. Search engines would need to check the legality of every ecommerce site before inclusion in the search results, and recheck after every content change. Censorship of any sort will likely be more exclusive than inclusive simply so companies can protect themselves.
The added expense of these additional layers of approval will make it very expensive to do business on the Internet. What was once an open and inviting network of ideas and enterprise would become something else entirely when sites need permission from their hosting companies before they publish their blog posts.
Fragmentation of the Internet
Another disturbing aspect of the SOPA is that it would change the current domain naming system (DNS). By blocking or appropriating domain names within the US, this act could create a situation where domain addresses resolve to different companies depending on the country you are in. Some fear this could break the Internet as we know it.
Will Lawmakers Heed the Outcry?
Thus far, this act has inspired an online movement to scrap the SOPA and find a better solution. However, online protesters face opponents with deep pockets and entrenched lobbies. It remains to be seen how this will play out in an election year, and whether the US will remain true to its ideals of free enterprise and freedom of speech.