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Understanding SOPA & PIPA and Why Major Websites Are Offline Wednesday

Posted on by Colin Haley

Wikipedia_dark_18_jan-470-75-300x191Where is my Wikipedia?  Why can I not see the Google logo?  These are questions many people are asking today as Internet giants are blacking out their sites in protest against Congressional legislation that could have great impact on how the Internet is regulated and operated.  Currently, two bills are slowly moving through Congress, known as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect-IP Act), both with similar goals: to prevent the piracy of copyrighted material by foreign sites from being traded and sold via the Internet.

Originally introduced in the House of Representatives late last year, SOPA was designed to protect intellectual property and, according to the bills sponsor, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX),   “. . . to protect American workers, inventors and job creators from foreign thieves who steal our products, technology, and intellectual property.”  The bill would allow for the U.S. Department of Justice and copyright holders to seek court orders that would force search engines, advertisers, and DNS providers (to name a few) to block traffic to alleged infringing websites from overseas.  This could mean blocking advertisers and payment processors from collaborating with such sites, preventing search engines from linking to such sites, and blocking user access to such sites.

PIPA was introduced as a Senate bill in May of 2011 by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT).  The bill, similar to SOPA, is to enhance “enforcement against rogue websites operated and registered overseas.”  PIPA is a sister bill to SOPA with a few minor differences.  First, PIPA does not have a provision that requires search engines to remove infringing sites from their indexes, a topic that has caused considerable uproar.  Second, PIPA does not include a provision that makes it illegal to stream unauthorized copyrighted content.

The idea of stopping Internet piracy seems logical.  Internet copyright infringement has been illegal since 1998, due to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  However, large Internet corporations like Google and Facebook believe these measures infringe on First Amendment rights and create a censorship of the Internet.  One example opponents cite as to why these bills are problematic is that sites with user generated content would be responsible for policing said content.  This content would include articles, videos, pictures, or even blog comments.  This would put Facebook, YouTube, WordPress and other large sites at risk and would be disastrous for new start-ups that lack the resources needed for content management.  Some also worry that these bills would give too much control to the Government and copyright holders or allow private companies to formulate their own lists of offenders.  The constitutional issues surrounding due process and the seizure of property, in this case, domain names and websites, are also of concern.

So, with all of this public unease, where do these bills stand now?  A hearing to amend SOPA will be held in February.  Representative Smith stated that “Due to the Republican and Democratic retreats taking place over the next two weeks, markup. . .is expected to resume in February.”  Not only are large Internet companies taking a stand against this legislation, but some of our own Governmental leaders have expressed their opposition.  Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did so via Twitter, as well as Maine’s Senator Susan Collins through a press release.  Even the Obama administration stated that it will not support SOPA due to its likelihood of leading to Internet censorship.  PIPA is also still alive and the legislation is scheduled to go before the Senate on January 24th .

While GWI is sensitive to the legitimate concerns of intellectual property owners, we believe the legislation currently under consideration would do too much damage to the free and open global communications network the world has worked so hard to build.

Those on both sides of the issue are anxiously awaiting the results of the debate.  Until then, the blackout is a temporary one, and Wikipedia and the familiar Google Doodles will be back online soon.



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