Late last month, Texas Congressman Lamar Smith introduced H.R. 3261, more commonly known as the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. The goal of the bill is to provide the US Government, specifically the Attorney General, with the tools to crack down on copyright infringement and counterfeit goods. The intent of SOPA seems fair enough. Writers and musicians and other creative people spend a lot of time, effort, and money developing their work, and the internet makes it so easy to distribute that product without the initial creator getting any benefit from it. (As a few of our Persephone writers and editors learned recently, often plagiarized without even the credit of having their name on it.) Of course it comes as no surprise that groups like the RIAA, MPAA, television studios, and publishing companies would be the chief proponents of the bill; their livelihoods depend on intellectual property rights. But as with more legislation than I care to think about, SOPA comes with some pretty shady unintended consequences.
Several prominent internet companies, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter, released a letter to the House Judiciary Committee during legislative hearings on SOPA earlier this week. In it, they highlight some of the problems with the bill, namely the danger to sites that are mostly legitimate, whose maintainers attempt to remove copyrighted material. Under SOPA, those entire websites could be shut down because of the behavior of a minority of users, or even one. Think of Tumblr posts with links to movie or television downloads, fanfiction posted to Livejournal for source material that writers have expressly requested it not be, music uploaded to YouTube, a Google search that turns up some torrents, not to mention anything cross-posted to Facebook. These site owners do make a good faith effort to shut down copyright infringement when necessary. (Who hasn’t been frustrated at one time or another by clicking on an old link to find that “this content has been removed at the request of_____”?)
SOPA would give the Attorney General a long arm of power, allowing them to shut down not just American-based internet companies violating copyright, but foreign ones as well. The government would have the authority to request that financial institutions stop processing the business of websites that are suspected of infringing on copyright laws. A companion bill in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, goes even further and would require internet service providers to remove suspect links, even in private e-mail. Both bills use vague language like “in good faith” and “significant use” to cause serious, legitimate concerns about censorship.
If the intent of SOPA and the Protect IP Act are to protect American jobs – those of the creative sector workers who rely on intellectual property rights – there is a danger that the crackdown on internet communities would hurt creativity and jobs in a different way. In the letter to the House Judiciary Committee, the internet companies note:
We are concerned that these measures pose a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job-creation, as well as to our Nation’s cybersecurity. We cannot support these bills as written and ask that you consider more targeted ways to combat foreign “rogue” websites dedicated to copyright infringement and trademark counterfeiting, while preserving the innovation and dynamism that has made the Internet such an important driver of economic growth and job creation.
What can you do? Contact your Representative and Senators and let them know that SOPA goes too far. (To our non-American Persephone readers, these bills will affect you, too. You can write your own legislators asking them to put pressure on the American government to remove the language about shutting down companies and compelling ISPs on foreign soil to act!) You can also sign the at whitehouse.gov or American Censorship Day petitions opposing the legislation.