Why SOPA might pass -- and why it shouldn't

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is being debated in the US House of Representatives today. Wildly unpopular, this bill is the latest in a series of extreme and reactionary legislation that seek a heavy-handed approach to dealing with copyright infringement. If passed, SOPA would grant broad powers to censor and restrict content on the Internet.

Owing to a significant level of bi-partisan support, SOPA may well become law in 2012. Given that it is an election year, members of congress won’t wish to appear soft on crime. This, coupled with claims that such forceful legislation will aid the ailing US economy means that it is unlikely many politicians will contest it.

And there is reason to be critical of this bill. Under the proposed legislation, vaguely-defined intellectual property owners can levy a challenge against any site deemed to be have taken “inadequate steps” to prevent copyright infringement. Once an alleged violation has occurred, payment processors (like PayPal) and ad networks will be required to suspend payments to the site’s owners until a court ruling has been made. Which could take years.

Imagine trying to wage a legal battle against the MPAA without a source of income.

Worse, internet service providers will be forced to abide by the Attorney General’s blacklist of “rogue” sites or risk being held liable for their content. Providers must comply within five days, hardly enough time to assess whether a given claim of infringement is valid.

And the technical means by which this is achieved is through domain name service (DNS) filtering; a controversial and clumsy method for internet censorship. This targets not only the offending content, but the entire site, even for a single act of alleged infringement. Such blunt and extreme measures are a threat to all sites that host user-generated content.

The bills proponents make the claim that this kind of legislation is the only way to confront online piracy. They seek to present us with a false choice: draconian enforcement — or anarchy.

However, opponents of these bills are not arguing for the complete dissolution of intellectual property rights. Instead, we want laws that make sense, that respect due process and fair use, and that protect our fundamental rights.