Everything You Need to Know About the SOPA/PIPA Strike and Blackout

Internet sites all over are blacking out today in protest of SOPA and PIPA. Here's why.

Everything You Need to Know About the SOPA/PIPA Strike and Blackout

Internet sites all over are blacking out today in protest of SOPA and PIPA. Here’s why.

-Lucia Peters

SOPA censored

Having trouble using Wikipedia today? How about I Can Has Cheezburger? Reddit? Imgur? Wondering why Google has a giant black bar displayed on its homepage? There’s a reason for that. Two reasons, actually. And those reasons are SOPA and PIPA.

Odds are that you’ve heard at least something about what’s going on by now: In protest of two proposed laws currently working their way through both the US House of Representatives and the Senate, websites all over the ‘net today are participating in what has been dubbed the SOPA Strike. The two bills being protested—the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate—are efforts to stop copyright infringement on the Internet, particularly that which is committed by foreign websites. In theory, this might be a good idea; we all know that piracy is rampant on the Internet, and we all know it’s a huge problem. The trouble is that it’s extremely difficult to regulate and control pirating on a frontier as vast as the Internet. Of course stealing isn’t right, and I’m not going to hide behind the whole “well, everyone’s doing it, so meh meh meh” defense. But here’s the thing: These two bills run a very high risk of infringing upon free expression. Not so good, right?

True, SOPA was temporarily shelved in 2010, but it is by no means dead; according to its sponsor, the bill is going up for debate again in February. Furthermore, PIPA is going to vote in the Senate on January 24—just a week away. EFF has detailed pretty thoroughly exactly what the dangers would be if SOPA and/or PIPA were to be enacted, but what it all comes down to is this: Many believe the pieces of legislation to be badly drafted, and that because of this, they won’t actually accomplish what they’re setting out to do. Instead, they might effectively function as forms of Internet censorship, violating the First Amendment (you know, the one that guarantees us freedom of speech) and severely hampering online innovation. Google didn’t get to be Google by going with the flow—but SOPA and PIPA could prevent more these sorts of innovations happening in the future.

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Unlike, say, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which focuses on the removal of specific, unauthorized content from the Internet, SOPA and PIPA both target the sites hosting the content themselves. Website owners will be required to police user-contributed material, and it’s possible that entire sites could be unnecessarily blocked. According to prominent figures in the Internet-based economy, such as Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, start-ups working under the rules of SOPA and PIPA “wouldn’t be able to handle the costs that come with defending their sites against possible violations.” The legislation targets foreign companies, but domestic companies might still be liable for linking to those companies’ content. Sites like Reddit might not legally be required to monitor themselves all the time, according to Jayme White, the staff director for the Senate Finance Subcommittee on international trade, “you might have your pants sued off of you [if you don’t].” For those smaller companies that don’t have massive teams of lawyers at their beck and call… well, you can see how this would be a problem. In relation to bloggers, said Rebecca MacKinnon, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan New America Foundation, “[it could have] a tremendous chilling effect on people trying to conduct political discourse and trying to use content in a fair context”—that is, innocent Internet users could get penalized for absolutely no reason. As someone who makes a living on the Internet, this is pretty troubling to me; but it’s not just the professional bloggers that have to worry about it. It’s everyone.

Which brings us back to today’s SOPA Strike. Opponents of the bills aren’t being quiet about their thoughts, and have subsequently mobilized to create the biggest Internet protest in history. The strike is taking two forms: Some sites, like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, are still operational, but have displayed banners in prominent positions to draw attention to the problem; others, like Wikipedia and our friends at College Candy and The Berry, are blacking out entirely. The blackouts are geared towards demonstrating exactly how much these two bills, if passed, would hamper the Internet. Notably, Wikipedia has kept its pages on SOPA and PIPA active, so head on over there if you want to check out the real nitty gritty on the bills.

Yes, piracy probably does need to be regulated more than it is right now. But not like this—not in ways that will strip people of their rights or give unprecedented amounts of power to specific groups. According to the Hollywood Reporter, a Google spokeswoman said in a statement, “Like many other tech companies, we believe that there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking U.S. companies to censor the Internet.” Hear, hear.

The full list of sites participating in the strike can be found here, along with ways to participate. Want to speak up about the issue? Call your Senators. Make your voice heard.

Lucia Peters is BettyConfidential’s associate editor.

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