Imagine someone posted a video of themselves poorly singing “Set Fire to the Rain” by Adele on YouTube, shared the link on Facebook and the video was aggregated by a search engine like Google.
Now imagine that the government could completely and permanently shut down Google, Facebook and YouTube, and that person who posted the video could find themselves in prison for up to five years.
Does this sound far-fetched? There are two bills currently in committee making their way through congress which, if enacted, could make this a reality. The two bills are The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PROTECT-IP).
As their supporters are sponsored by the entertainment industry, it is unlikely you’ve heard about them on the news, and even if you have, it’s even less likely anyone has truly explained the potential ramifications of them.
The proponents of SOPA and PROTECT-IP claim they are designed to stop Internet piracy, the act of taking a file and creating a duplicate, which is then distributed for free to others. Most often this file is copyrighted, making this a violation of copyright.
The FBI has estimated that such copyright infringement costs the U.S. on average roughly $200 billion to $250 billion in profits annually, although they also admit that there is no record or source data for the estimate, and the information cannot be corroborated. In other words, it’s a made up estimate with nothing to back it up.
In a recent article the L.A. Times revealed that roughly 70 percent of all persons age 18 to 29 had at some point used this method of copyright infringement. However, information has also surfaced that those who pirate content also purchase more content legitimately than those who do not pirate content.
One potential explanation for this is that a pirate can listen to an album for free first, and then upon deciding they like it, they will purchase a copy from the rights holder. Whereas those who don’t pirate won’t know if the album is any good, and simply won’t risk money buying it.
But corporations already have tools to fight piracy. Just look at the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the 2007 Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act (PRO-IP) and the 2011 Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).
So why do they need another law in place to fight piracy if there are already so many in place? The short answer is, PROTECT-IP and SOPA go much, much further than simply stopping piracy.
SOPA and PROTECT-IP grant the government the power to force Internet service providers (ISPs) to block copyright infringing websites outside the jurisdiction of the United States, essentially for the first time allowing ISPs to censor certain websites.
It also grants the government the ability to force United States based advertisers or payment services to cancel their account with the infringing websites.
But the power of SOPA and PROTECT-IP extend far beyond that by also, for the first time, holding websites accountable for user-submitted content.
This means that social networking or user-content based websites such as Facebook or YouTube would be shut down by the United States government if even one of their users posted or was believed to have posted copyrighted content. This means corporations can accuse start-up websites of hosting copyrighted material. Simply by that accusation, with no actual evidence, the website could be shut down until the owners of the website proved in court that it had no infringing content.
The two bills also contain new legal provisions stating that anyone who posts copyrighted material could face up to five years in prison for a first offense.
SOPA and PROTECT-IP are obviously deeply flawed and overreaching bills because of this, but they are gaining traction quickly on the floor of the House and Senate. If you wonder why anyone would think such a bill was a good idea, you need look no further than those who have contributed the most to the bill’s most ardent supporters: the entertainment industry.
The same industry that tried, unsuccessfully, to ban the VCR and first MP3 players for the same flawed reasoning they are using to push forward SOPA and PROTECT-IP: the claim that piracy will kill their industry.