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The Daily Need

Is Congress putting online freedom at risk? How SOPA would change the Internet

Popular websites Reddit, Wikipedia and Google participated in an Internet-wide day of action against SOPA Wednesday by staging a series of blackouts.

Prominent lawmakers are already backing away from the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) after major sites like Wikipedia and Reddit staged “blackouts” Wednesday to protest the bill’s draconian measures, which they say would severely restrict the free flow of information online.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas both said Wednesday that they would no longer support the bill in its current form, after a wide coalition of websites, social media companies and other start-ups warned that the legislation would have grave consequences for innovation and freedom of expression of the Internet.

Lobby groups pushing the bill — the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others — say online piracy is metastasizing, eating away at their businesses and, in turn, the livelihoods of artists and other content producers. Those groups have campaigned aggressively for SOPA and its sister bill, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), which would vest in the government unprecedented powers to stop piracy by overseas websites.

The unintended consequences, however, could be far-reaching, fundamentally altering the infrastructure of the open Internet.

SOPA would put the hurt on start-ups

Right now, for the most part, the Internet is cheap and easy to access. If you have a broadband connection, some coding skills and an idea, you can launch a website without much hassle. And that website can potentially take off. Of course, the more successful sites usually involve a little more ingenuity, but the basic tools are available to anyone at low cost. If the American Dream is alive anywhere right now, it’s online.

If SOPA passes, critics say, that could change. SOPA would put the onus on websites to make sure they aren’t hosting copyrighted material. Right now if, say, a studio spots one of its movies on YouTube, the studio must notify YouTube, which is then required to remove the copyrighted material within a reasonable period of time. If SOPA passes, YouTube could be punished immediately, and the movie studio could sue the site for hosting the material.

That may be a problem for YouTube, but it’s an even bigger problem for aspiring YouTubes. Start-ups that use social media and user-generated content would have to pour large sums of money into policing their users’ content for copyrighted material. One lawsuit could put them out of business. Critics say such a draconian step is unnecessary given that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act already lays out tough enforcement measures.

Online protest movements would suffer, too

Social media and video-sharing sites like Twitter and YouTube have facilitated movements for social change, like Occupy Wall Street, and the revolutions in the Arab world by allowing protesters to communicate freely with each other and the public. Protesters have also been able to document human rights abuses in countries like Egypt and Libya by filming them and posting them online for the world to see.

That could change, however, if SOPA is enacted in its current form. Again, these sites would be forced to police user-generated content much more aggressively, restricting the free flow of information. And search engines, too, would be forced to blacklist foreign sites if those sites host copyrighted material. Proxy servers, like those used during the Arab Spring protests to get around censorship regimes, could be shut down too, since they’re often used to thwart copyright enforcement as well.

The entertainment industry would be in charge

The MPAA and RIAA, two of the main backers of SOPA, say the bill is aimed at protecting the livelihoods of artists, whose content is being stolen online by foreign pirates. That’s certainly true. But if SOPA does pass, allowing the entertainment industry to more aggressively crack down on piracy, critics say, artists and other content producers won’t necessarily reap the rewards.

For one thing, many prominent artists have complained that most if not all of the profits from their work go to the industry rather than to them. The comedian Louis C.K. said in an interview with NPR recently, “I’ve never seen a check from a [TV] comedy special.” C.K. decided to release his latest stand-up special on his website as a digital download for $5, rather than release it through an entertainment company or iTunes. He made over a million dollars.

That strategy, critics of SOPA say, may contain some valuable lessons for the entertainment industry. Rather than fight piracy through a series of restrictive measures that threaten to curtail the free flow of information on the Internet, copyright owners should make their content unique, valuable and easy to purchase. Who’s going to illegally download a stand-up comedy special when it’s available online for $5 with no restrictions?

Some people, maybe (C.K.’s special almost immediately showed up on illegal file-sharing sites). But for however much money a company loses on piracy, Internet advocates say, there’s plenty more to be made through innovation.

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