25 January 2012

PIPA and SOPA's attempts to regulate Internet content met with fierce opposition and tabled for now

By Eric Donato, Juris Blogger
The debate pitting major media corporations against a diverse coalition of public interest groups and technology companies would have culminated on January 24th with a Senate vote on the PROTECT IP Act [PIPA], the law that intended to reduce the prevalence of unauthorized copyrighted content on the Internet. PROTECT IP, and a similar bill introduced in the House called the Stop Online Piracy Act [SOPA], set off a tumultuous public discussion on the topic of Internet piracy when they were introduced last year, and amid mounting opposition from the public, freedom of information advocate groups, and tech giants including Google, Facebook, and Twitter, were recently abandoned.

PROTECT IP would have allowed the Justice Department to obtain court orders against foreign websites accused of copyright infringement, and with proper service of the order, allowed the Justice Department to direct US-based Internet service providers, advertisers, banks and payment services to cease doing business with the website that hosted the infringing material. This would have effectively shut down offending websites hosted by servers in the United States. The bill also could have barred search engines from linking users to offending sites.

Until recently, PIPA enjoyed strong bipartisan support, 40 co-sponsors, and the approval of Senate Majority leader Harry Reid. A web-based protest campaign dramatically changed that status quo, delaying a cloture vote for PIPA and sending Senators scrambling to find a workable compromise for the bill. Consideration of SOPA was postponed indefinitely by its own lead sponsor in the House.
A confluence of protest actions ultimately lead to the enormous success of the anti-PIPA and –SOPA campaign. Thousands of websites, including Google, Wikipedia, and Reddit, participated in a coordinated one-day blackout of their websites, petitions against the bills accumulated millions of signatures, and boycotts against companies that supported PIPA and SOPA forced those companies, such as GoDaddy.com, to abandon their backing of the bills.

Screen shots from Wikipedia, Google, Craigslist, and 
in response to the proposed PIPA and SOPA bills.
On the Internet, most violations of intellectual property come in the form of music and movies that users either watch streaming online or download to their hard drives without paying for the content. Any foreign website that provided access to copyrighted material in this manner without permission from the copyright holder would have fallen under PROTECT IP’s purview. Proponents of the bill claimed that cutting down on Internet piracy would have created jobs, increased tax revenue, and encouraged innovation by ensuring copyright holders are paid for the use of their products or services. While estimates of the impact of Internet piracy vary considerably, the Motion Picture Association of America has pointed to a study claiming piracy costs the U.S. economy $58 billion a year.

Opponents of the bill expressed concern about the effect it may have had on websites that host user-created content, such as Facebook or YouTube, because a post by any user that linked to or involved copyrighted material could have subjected the entire website to a court-ordered shutdown. Rivals of the bill suggested that this may have not only made currently popular social websites targets of a shutdown, but also may have stifled the creation of new websites or cause up-and-coming mediums of expression on the Internet to close shop for failure to effectively police their own forums and promptly delete user-posted copyrighted content.

Censorship concerns were also raised, because websites that permit users to express themselves often create diverse, vibrant, even chaotic environments that contain links to (or in some way utilize) copyrighted music or movie clips. Shutting those sites down because they contained some copyrighted material, some argued, is tantamount to censorship.

Currently, anyone who posts copyrighted material, such as a favorite song or movie clip, violates federal intellectual property laws and can face up to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for a first offense.

Concerns were also raised about the effect PROTECT IP could have on Internet security. A widely circulated report issued by experts on the Internet’s domain name system [DNS], which would have been subject to filtering requirements under PROTECT IP, argued the bill would have exposed “networks and users to increased security and privacy risks.” The DNS is a system that translates words typed into an Internet address bar into numerical IP addresses that computers use to communicate with one another and ultimately provide users access to the websites they are trying to get to. For example, to access the Juris Blog website, a user types in http://duquesnejurismagazine.blogspot.com/ in the address bar and presses the enter key. The DNS system translates this into the IP address that brings the user to the website. PROTECT IP would have required the DNS system to filter out websites that had been taken down due to copyright infringement, which according to the report would have posed serious technical difficulties and is also the same method of DNS manipulation used by China to censor what content its citizens can access.

Though they’ve been shelved for the moment, neither SOPA nor PIPA are entirely out of the picture. Congressmen who originally supported the bills have stated that dealing with online piracy continues to be a legislative priority, and PIPA particularly may be amended to address what Senator Reid has called “…the legitimate issues raised by many about this bill.”

Eric Donato is a first year student at the Duquesne University School of Law. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied Journalism and Political Science. He has been a staff writer for several publications, including Pitt Med magazine. Eric can be reached at ericsdonato@gmail.com.