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So what exactly are SOPA and PIPA?

By TRCF intern Natalia Mitsui

Recent uproar about these two bills has garnered mass protest that has caught the attention of the nation. Those opposing the bill and those supporting the bill have their own buzz words when it comes to defending their point of view.

The supporters of the bill claim piracy. The opposition claims censorship. With heavy handed words being thrown about, the fundamental aim of the bill is being lost. To get a more leveled view of the implications of the bill, it’s best to break it down to the intent.

Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA (HR 3261) is a bill that was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives on October 26, 2011. Protect IP Act, or PIPA (S 968) is a bill that was introduced to the Senate on May 12, 2011. Aside from being two separate congressional bills, there are more similarities than differences between the two acts.

The main aim of these two bills is to give authority to the U.S. Department of Justice to get court orders against foreign Internet pirates. Supporters of the bill have called these piracy sites “rogue sites.” The hope is that with the passage of these bills, copyright and trademark holders will be able to pursue legal action regardless of where the violators are located in the world. Other aspects of the bills include that Internet service providers and search engines will have to actively prevent web surfers from accessing and payment processors and advertising networks will have to stop servicing these rogue sites.

The main supporters of the bill have been the Motion Picture Association of America, Recording Industry Association of America, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Along with 400 other businesses who have written in to support SOPA and PIPA, these organizations have claimed illegal movie, music, and other copyright material downloads result in an approximate annual loss of $20 billion –a number that fluctuates depending on when and who is asked.

The bills make sweeping claims that rogue sites need to be shutdown and brought to justice for hosting copyrighted or trademarked materials that can be downloaded or streamed. Although PIPA is considered the more conservative of the two, both bills have been accused of being too broad. The recent outcry was in protest of the bills’ language. SOPA and PIPA were overreaching and incriminating too many people. Another criticism was that the burden was placed on third party websites and the stipulations laid out were difficult if not impossible to implement.

Recent global events, such as the Arab Spring, have shown the muscle of the online community. The rapid mobilization and collective voice has made individual Internet users more powerful than their real life counterparts. Users who are constantly plugged into the online community fear that SOPA and PIPA will change the way the Internet works. For example videos from YouTube will be expected to be taken down by the website, instead of the current method where copyright holders need to request that the videos be removed.

While the principal talking point by the opposition is the worry of censorship. The idea that websites that can be accessed in other parts of the world are being blocked in the United States brings forth the image of a government controlled media. Another legitimate concern is if U.S. companies are allowed to file suit against overseas copyright infringers, there will be an avalanche of lawsuits abusing the new laws.

On January 18, an orchestrated protest from the virtual and actual world took place. There were street protests in New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, but the most notable movement was online. Websites such as Wikipedia, Reddit, and Boing Boing blacked out their pages in protest, while other sites took more subtle measures. Tumblr, the microblogging platform, encouraged its subscribers by giving them educated speaking points to call in directly to their representatives in protest to the bills. The juggernaut that is Google chose to strategically place a black censor bar over its famous logo.

In October 2011 Yahoo quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in protest to SOPA and PIPA, while Google and Consumer Electronic s Association threatened to do the same. In November there was a letter writing movement in opposition where major online players like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, eBay, Mozilla, Yahoo, AOL, and LinkedIn participated.

With bills of this nature like SOPA and PIPA there is usually an inherent collective action problem. Since both bills are supported by lobbying groups that donate millions of dollars to congressional campaigns, it is difficult to bring forth enough protest to change it. However, the backlash from the public coupled with online companies protests were enough to have the bills’ supporters buckle under the pressure to reconsider the wording.

While PIPA remains to be more popular than SOPA in the U.S. Congress, both bills are likely to be watered down. In addition, even the White House administration spoke against SOPA and PIPA stating that they may squelch startups and innovators. The United States is currently one of the least hospitable nations for copyright infringement, forcing these rogue sites overseas.

In a society that values freedom of speech and business rights, the fundamental question comes down to which is more important. So far, the loudest voice has been protestors trying to keep away what they deem as censorship. However, the supporters may have the law on their side when it comes to protecting copyrights and trademarks against piracy.

It will be interesting to see the outcome of this public debate. It is not definite if there will be outright winner or loser, or if there will be a compromise where no one leaves with egg on their face.

For official wording for SOPA, visit http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.uscongress/legislation.112hr3261; and PIPA, visit http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.uscongress/legislation.112s968.

TRCF intern blog posts are written to give a local as well as global perspective on the seven issue areas that TRCF funds. We welcome your input and thoughts on these posts on our Facebook page. If you have a topic that you would like one of our interns to write about please contact us through the website with your suggestions.