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SOPA: the public debate

SOPA: the public debate


The Stop Online Piracy Act has generated a load of controversy, and we're bringing you up to speed on the conversation.

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If you've been on the web in the past couple of weeks, you may know that the debate around the Stop Online Piracy Act has reached a fever pitch: petitions have been offered, scathing editorials written, boycotts proposed, and members of Congress have spent more than a dozen hours arguing and hurling insults at one another while teasing the public with shifting dates for the bill's debate. (If you don't know what SOPA is or what it does, be sure to check out our analysis.)

Of course, SOPA is just the latest incarnation of copyright law reform that Congress and others have been attempting to push through for some time, and the current debate has evolved from two bills that inspired much of the language in SOPA — S.978, the Commercial Felony Streaming Act, and S.968, the Protect IP Act, or PIPA, which were both introduced in the Senate back on May 12th.

Let's look at what's been said since.

The Commercial Felony Streaming Act, or "Free Bieber"

Some of the current debate looks pretty similar to an argument over The Commercial Felony Streaming Act (S.978) that took place earlier this year: concerned citizens of the web asserted that it would make streaming things like video game content a felony with up to five years of prison-time, or worse, put Justin Bieber, who became famous uploading covers of copyrighted songs, behind bars. A "Free Bieber" effort was created to co-opt the passion of fans and inspire opposition to the bill, but of course, he was never in danger of being arrested. In fact, our own Nilay Patel thoroughly examined S.978 to find that its opponents had made much ado about nothing — the bill aimed to make penalties for streaming of copyright content consistent with those for other types of infringement, and would not have put the average YouTube infringer in jail. Unfortunately, trending topics aren't usually interrupted by facts.

While S.978 isn't terribly important on its own, it and PIPA have led to SOPA, and now the content of the debate is about the bill's threat to the fundamental structure of the web. SOPA is much broader than the Senate's bills, permitting the Justice Department and courts to order ISPs to shut down access to unfavorable websites, among other things. While there's no "Free Bieber" frenzy over SOPA, similar shock tactics from opponents have been used to bring the bill to people's attention, including an "internet blackout" which some websites used to show the effects of censorship — Tumblr made waves on the web when it blacked out all user-generated content for American Censorship Day. Mozilla and Reddit also participated by censoring their logos and directing users to instructions on how to contact their representatives.

And so, the eyes of the internet fell on Congress.

Congress: An Education

Before bills take up residency on the floor of Congress, they must go through "markups" in committees and sub-committees — it's a process that allows bills dealing with specific issues to be vetted, debated, and amended by a smaller group of lawmakers who presumably have a lot more specific knowledge on the subject matter. If they don't have enough knowledge, the committee can bring in expert witnesses to testify on the Congressional record. Unfortunately, the committee has only heard from content industry representatives until now, and as some people watched the House Committee on the Judiciary, they realized that Congress doesn't actually seem to know much at all about the internet.

Here are some choice excerpts from the SOPA hearings so far. (You can see a list of the bill's cosponsors, here.)

"I am aware that there are some people out there who think that the internet is like Las Vegas, whatever goes on on the internet stays on the internet..."

Rep. Mel Watt (D-North Carolina)

"... Mr Chairman, would you use the gavel and your influence as the chairman to help move this along and stop your colleagues from wasting all of our time?"

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California)

"The whole point of the legislation is to stop foreign websites from infringing, from stealing private property, from stealing content."

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York)

"The problem of rogue websites is real, immediate, and increasing. It harms companies across the spectrum. And its scope is staggering."

"It protects the security and integrity of the DNS by establishing a kill switch that would allow a provider to not carry out an order upon a finding that it would impair the security or integrity of the system."

"The Stop Online Piracy Act has broad support across the aisle here in the House, across the street in the Senate and across the country."

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas)

"All we are trying to do here is stop online piracy. Now, since when did the opposition get so fierce against this? What could be behind the motives of people or organizations that don't think stopping online piracy is something that we need to deal with...?"

Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Michigan)

"When we had the last hearing, there wasn't a single person who could answer the technical questions, and they all admitted that... that is very unsatisfactory to me, and it ought to be very unsatisfactory to this committee, and it certainly ought to be very unsatisfactory to this institution."

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-California)

"I think from cybersecurity to technical experts, the bill's impact on the security of the internet and the integrity of the basic infrastructure of the internet is very much at risk."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California)

"It is very dangerous to give the government, and the Attorney General in this case, a power which can, in fact, only be used selectively, because the scope of the issue and the scope of the powers is so broad that it would take an unfathomable enforcement authority to enforce in every case."

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado)

"It is very clear, we are going to lose here today. No, let me rephrase that, we are going to lose eventually, and we are going to lose in the worst possible way. We are going to lose without all the facts, we are going to lose without the process being open in the way that I would hope it will be in the new year."

"Regardless of recent amendments to SOPA, both bills with risk fragmenting the internet global domain system, the DNS, and have other technical consequences. In exchange for this, such legislation would engender censorship that would simultaneously be circumventing deliberate infringers while harming innocent parties and their right and ability to communicate and express themselves online..."

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California)

It's worth noting that in an absurd turn, the committee paused to debate Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee's use of the word "offensive" in response to Rep. Steve King, who called her boring on Twitter. The committee spent some time trying to coax Jackson Lee into apologizing, so that they could avoid making an official ruling as to whether she "impugned the integrity" of another member. Good to know that Congress has its priorities straight.

So after nearly 12 hours of debate last Thursday, and several more on the following day, the hearings were abruptly adjourned with SOPA co-sponsor (and Judiciary Committee chairman) Rep. Lamar Smith promising that they would re-open as soon as possible. After suggesting that the hearings would resume next year, the committee quickly scheduled the markup to resume on Wednesday the 21st, but then reversed its decision again, and it looks like the markup will resume in early January.

The conversation continues.

Taking Sides

SOPA continues to anger internet advocates that see it as a threat to an open web, and the debate has expanded beyond the legislators: the bill's opponents are now proposing to boycott companies that support SOPA. Many companies are already against the bill, and some have already reversed their position.

GoDaddy emerged as the biggest target today, after Reddit user "selfprodigy" promised to transfer 51 domains away from the controversial host, and suggested a "move your domain day." Others have since added their support for the boycott, including Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh who tweeted that he would be moving a thousand domains away from GoDaddy unless it stops supporting SOPA.

The ever-conspicuous Jimmy Wales, head of Wikipedia, also piled onto the abandon GoDaddy bandwagon:

GoDaddy has since reversed its support for SOPA in the face of massive protest, after making comments that it had not yet noticed any impact, so it's a likely sign that the boycott has the company's accountants worried. We'll have to wait and see if other SOPA supporters are similarly swayed.

While GoDaddy had to take some heat from consumers to oppose the bill, many companies have already come out in opposition to SOPA, including Google, Twitter, Mozilla, Zynga, Yahoo, Facebook, and others, some of which blasted the bill in a full-page ad in the New York Times last month — they say that while they support the bill's stated goals, it would "pose a serious risk" to innovation, job creation, and even national security.

Other confederations have also cropped up: On December 15th, a group of 83 eminent engineers including Vint Cerf, co-designer of TCP/IP and one of the "fathers of the internet," sent an open letter to Congress opposing SOPA and PIPA. The letter states that "we, the undersigned, have played various parts in building a network called the internet," and that "if enacted, either of these bills will create an environment of tremendous fear and uncertainty for technological innovation, and seriously harm the credibility of the United States in its role as a steward of key Internet infrastructure."

Many pundits and publications have also taken up the issue recently. Here are some more highlights from the crossfire:

"Key members of the House Judiciary Committee still don't understand how the internet works, and worse yet, it's not clear whether they even want to."

Joshua Kopstein, for Motherboard

"The censorship provisions of SOPA and PIPA require US companies to set up a system that is technically identical to internet censorship systems in countries like China and Iran."

"Why do critics of SOPA worry that the bill will threaten legitimate speech and innovation? Because its supporters have spent three decades providing overwhelming justification for that fear at every opportunity."

Mike Masnick, TechDirt

"The online activists, the free culture crowd, and the pro-open and free Internet crowd needs to get a clue too... In Washington, those who 'educate' Congress the best usually end up with the winning legislation."

Clay Johnson, The Information Diet

"I just don't like bullies. Especially hypocritical bullies. If you actually believe in free speech, and not simply the distribution of other people's intellectual property, you should let journalists, law firms, and investors exercise their rights to it alongside your own... instead, we are threatening anyone who disagrees with us."

Glenn Kelman, Redfin While groups and individuals debate publicly, some are working behind the scenes. Microsoft, one of the biggest elephants in the room, has remained quiet about the bill so far — but as CNET reports, the company is lobbying against the bill in its current form, after it strongly endorsed PIPA earlier this year. CNET notes that the concern about SOPA also led to a reversal from the Business Software Alliance (BSA), a trade association that represents Microsoft and is a member of the International Intellectual Property Alliance. The Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America are also members of the International Intellectual Property Alliance, and are chief proponents of SOPA / PIPA, so it looks like there's tension even within copyright circles. BSA President Robert Holleyman says that "valid and important questions have been raised" about the bill, and that it's unsatisfactory in its current form.

To add more confusion, other alleged proponents of SOPA are now coming out of the woodwork in opposition to the bill: as TechDirt claims, a number of law firms and companies have asked to be taken off of the House Judiciary Committee's official list of groups supporting SOPA. Gibson Guitar posted on Facebook that it doesn't actually support SOPA, and that the company's CEO has demanded that it be removed from the list — Gibson agreed to sign a US Chamber of Commerce letter in support of the general concept of SOPA / PIPA, but did not explicitly endorse the approach taken in the current bill.

If you don't want to rely on Congress' list, you can check out this crowd sourced list of active SOPA supporters.

Much more to come

There's no doubt that the battle over SOPA will continue through next year, and given the wildfire that's spreading on the web, the debate has no end in sight. For opponents of the bill, the greatest source of strength is not an unexpected one: the open web they're fighting for has given their message an opportunity to be heard. With GoDaddy's reversal, it also appears to be a tool that can provide activists with tangible results. Of course, the same web allowed a "free Justin Bieber" campaign to go unchecked, but then, that might be the point: for the time being, it's still a place where people can share their ideas, their disagreements, and their inner weirdness without fear of censorship. Unfortunately, it's also still a place where you can steal a movie with just a few clicks.

Note: The Verge, and its parent company Vox Media, are officially opposed to the Stop Online Piracy Act.