SOPA - the Stop Online Piracy Act - and a sister bill, PIPA - the Protect IP Act - seek to minimize the dissemination of copyrighted material online by targeting sites that promote and enable the sharing of copyright-protected material, like The Pirate Bay. While this goal may be laudable, entrepreneurs, legal scholars and free speech activists are worried about the consequences of these bills for the architecture of the Internet. At the MIT Media Lab, we share those concerns, and we oppose SOPA and PIPA as threats to innovation on the Internet.
To limit access to rogue sites, SOPA and PIPA would:
- supersede the "notice and takedown" method of policing for copyrighted material on Internet services and require service providers to police content uploaded by users or prevent users from uploading copyrighted content
- require Internet Service Providers to change their DNS servers and block resolution of the domain names of websites in other countries that host illegal copies of content
- require search engines to modify their search results to exclude foreign websites that illegally host copyrighted material
- order payment processors like PayPal and ad services like Google AdSense to cease doing business with foreign websites that illegally host copyrighted content
Major internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Twitter and others, oppose SOPA and PIPA because it changes the liability rules around copyright infringement. Under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998, companies are protected from charges of "contributory infringement" on content uploaded by users, so long as the company follows a procedure and remove infringing content when an alert process is followed. SOPA substantially alters this system, and internet companies worry that without protection from contributory infringement, user-generated content sites like YouTube and Twitter would not have come into existence. The burden of reviewing user-submitted content - every blog post, every video, every image - would be impossible for a company to manage, and companies would have likely stuck with the Web 1.0 model of publishing edited, vetted content instead of moving to a Web 2.0 model where users create the content. Several internet companies took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to express their concerns about SOPA and PIPA.
Free speech advocates, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, worry that SOPA may provide powerful new tools to silence online speech. Confronted with uncomfortable political speech, repressive governments often seek to silence dissent by reporting content as defamatory, slanderous or copyright infringing, hoping the companies hosting the speech will remove the content. SOPA accelerates the process of copyright removal, with a mechanism that permits copyright holders to obtain court orders against sites hosting copyrighted materials and have those sites rapidly blocked. Scholars of online censorship, like Rebecca MacKinnon at the New America Foundation, worry that SOPA may be popular with the Chinese government as with the copyright holders who are lobbying for the bill.
US law already permits the seizure of domestic domain names that are used for piracy, and the US seized 150 domains in November. SOPA is an attempt to enforce copyright provisions across international borders by prohibiting American internet users from accessing certain foreign websites, like The Pirate Bay. In effect, it would create a firewall to prevent users from accessing prohibited intellectual property, much as China's "great firewall" limits access to politically sensitive information.
Harvard legal scholar Lawrence Tribe believes that SOPA is likely unconstitutional, as it can remove constitutionally protected speech without a hearing, a form of "prior restraint". In a memo sent to members of Congress, he points out that SOPA proposes a system where a single instance of prohibited material could lead to the blocking of thousands of unrelated pieces of content.
Internet experts have observed that, beyond being dangerous to innovation, harmful to speech and potentially unconstitutional, SOPA and PIPA are unlikely to work. Countries that block access to prohibited websites by altering the domain name system - as Vietnam does in blocking access to Facebook - find that millions of users are able to circumvent this form of censorship. Millions of Vietnamese users have become Facebook users by entering that site's IP address into their browsers, or configuring their computers to use an uncensored DNS server. It's likely that dedicated US users of The Pirate Bay and other sites will do likewise. Effectively blocking access to sites like The Pirate Bay might require US ISPs to install powerful and expensive "deep packet inspection" software, a cost that would inevitably be passed onto their users.
The progress of the bills was slowed in late 2011 by widespread online activism opposing SOPA and PIPA. Hearings are likely to resume early in 2012, and opponents of the bills are facing off against organised lobbying campaigns by the music and film industries who support the legislation. On November 16, 2011, participatory media company Tumblr took strong online action against SOPA, redirecting requests for content on the site to a page that urged users to call US representatives and oppose the bill - their daylong campaign generated more than 87,000 calls to Congress. Internet community site Reddit plans a site-wide "blackout" on January 18th to inform users of the potential harms of SOPA and PIPA. Wikipedia is considering doing the same.
In the spirit of these protests, the MIT Media Lab has linked this blogpost to all our site pages, encouraging anyone interested in the work we do to learn more about SOPA and PIPA. More information and resources follow below. We believe that SOPA and PIPA would make it harder for Media Lab students, researchers and faculty to do what we do best: create innovative technologies that anticipate the future by creating it. We hope you'll join with us in opposing these bills and, if you are a US citizen, in letting your representatives know your concerns about this legislation.
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