Happy Stop SOPA Day!!!  Now, I don’t know if it will replace the Super Bowl as America’s most celebrated unofficial holiday but honestly, an awful lot of people took part in yesterday’s online blackout, yours truly included.

It’s interesting, isn’t it?  How the Internet can change and mold our lives?  One day you can see a reference to something, the equivalent of an electronic whisper  and suddenly BAM! It becomes part of your life.  The Web has brought us such gifts as (in some cases ones we’d prefer to take back) : Justin Bieber, eBay, Paypal (all the better to take your money, my pretty) and World of Warcraft.

I jumped into the SOPA foray only knowing a little about the topic and had my site blacked out yesterday like the good little freedom of speech supporter that I am.  Today I sat down at my computer and decided to dive deeper.

So, what is the Senate’s SOPA bill and its more perkily monikered House’s little sister, PIPA?

I wondered if the issue would become more gray, you know, have some concrete pro’s and con’s.  Often times one hears one side of the story and gets really gung-ho over voting someone off the island and then on closer examination one finds out they were just “edited to look evil”.

Let me reassure you so you can sleep tonight, this isn’t one of those times.

On the face of things, SOPA is a very good idea.  Pirates are stealing copyrighted material and intellectual property.  As a writer I am very in favor of people being compensated for the work they do.  In fact, I enthusiastically encourage it.  The argument that jobs need to be protected, market values maintained and revenue sheltered is also a cogent one. It seems eminently reasonable when there is theft occurring for someone in charge to decide to put a stop to it.

This is where we jump the track from a good idea to your proverbial hot mess.

The bill (specifically SOPA) operates on the idea that in order to deal with pirates, bit torrents and pharmaceutical knock-offs, who are primarily based in other countries and, ergo, beyond the practical reach of our federal government, one needs to remove them from two things: money and users.  The bill would ban advertising networks from using and, more importantly, paying infringing sites.  In theory this would cut the offending sites off from their revenue streams.

The bill would also give media content owners the right to block the domain names of any infringing site.  That means the site would still exist but search engines would no longer list the site and when you typed in the domain name your ISP (Internet Service Provider) would no longer bring it up for you.

In this case the law also specifies for the criminalization of content/intellectual property infringers and is punishable with up to five years in prison per count. That one might be harder to directly go after the offending sites if the site owner is over seas.

The bill gets in trouble for two basic reasons.  It seems that the authors did not think through the collateral damage.  This would be all the ways the law can be abused that its authors did not anticipate. (Or perhaps they did, who knows?) The second reason is that as the bill is currently written it won’t work.  It’s going to hurt American users and internet businesses far more than any damage it would do to the original pirates for whom the law was written.

The first problem is this whole blacklisting of infringing sites.  As soon as the site is accused of infringement, the site is eligible to be blacklisted and subsequently blocked.  This would be before any violation has been proven and through the blocking of the site to its users and its revenues the site owners would lose their best avenues of defending themselves from the charges.  The blocking does not require a court order. Payment processors or content providers like Visa or YouTube don’t even need a letter to shut off a site’s resources. The lack of due process is alarming to say the least.

The reason so many smaller internet users, like myself, are concerned over SOPA has to do with this domain name blocking.  For instance, if someone using a WordPress blog were to be blocked for infringement and they had the word “wordpress” in their domain name then all other WordPress users with the word “wordpress” in their sites’ names would also be blocked.  Likewise with Blogspot or any of the other blogging sites.  Even individuals in direct sales (Stampin’ Up!, Mary Kay, Cookie Lee, Tuperware, etc.) with company websites would be affected.  If one of their fellow consultants or the parent company was accused and had their site blocked then all sites with similar roots to their domain names would share that fate.  It could become very widespread, very quickly. ( Mind you, I’ve purchased my domain name so I don’t have WordPress in my address anymore but still, the point remains.)

There are many sites on the Web that are a conglomeration of smaller users.  For example Flicker in photos, Vimeo in user made videos and Etsy in home-made crafts.  If a few of their users or even only one were to be guilty, or just accused, of infringement it could effectively put the whole site out of business.

The next problem is  we human beings are awfully frail creatures and easily led into temptation.  In today’s media world we have just a few companies that control an awful lot of the media content: movies, music, all of our news and this bleeds into the Web.  For example I found this scenario laid out on the Huffington Post’s website:

“Google could easily take it upon itself to delist every viral video site on the internet with a “good faith belief” that they’re hosting copyrighted material. Leaving YouTube as the only major video portal … Comcast (an ISP) owns NBC (a content provider). Think they might have an interest in shuttering some rival domains? Under SOPA, they can do it without even asking for permission.”

Sites that do not necessarily infringe on copyrights but instead provide “A reasonable threat to established American corporations” would also be under siege.  For example, say you’d like to sell your tires on Craig’s List but Goodrich is concerned that this interferes  with their business model.  They can shut down Craig’s List.

Next we look at Twitter, Facebook, all the social networking sites out there.  Suppose you referenced a joke or one liner from a television show or popular movie, or you put up a picture or video from your favorite band? Or if you tweeted, your blog posts, a site indexed by Google, whatever, pick your flavor.  If you don’t have the proper authorization Facebook, or whichever site, would be legally obligated to take it down.

Or let’s say you figured out a clever way to get around SOPA- yea you!  So naturally, you decide to tell your friends how to do it,too.  SOPA has an “anti-circumvention” clause.  Even if what you posted doesn’t violate any copyrights, if you are telling people how to get around SOPA then it is considered legally to be just as bad. Again, Facebook or whoever would have to take it down.  If they did not they  would be subject to a government “enjoinment” and would be shut down.  All of these sites would have to monitor and control all of our content.  (Of course, they’re mining it all now anyhow for product placement but at least they aren’t editing us, too.)

The thing which really fries my brain cells about SOPA is that it’s ri-donk-culous on two big issues. In the US, the MPAA, and RIAA already have laws in place to request that infringing material be taken down. Hello, we’ve all seen enough “video removed” messages to know that it works just fine.  Why do we need more redundant laws?  Then there are the pirates that this law is actually supposed to be aimed at.  I hate to compliment the bad guys in this story but it seems to me they’ve done a pretty good job avoiding everything the movie studios and other media content owners have thrown at them.  Do you think they are even worried about this latest proposed piece of paper?

Still confused?  Undecided?  So far, in my humble opinion, this is the best video  (yeah, click there) explaining what SOPA and PIPA are and how they will affect life as we know it.  It does a very good job of breaking down the proposed legislation and its practical applications and effects.  Believe me, I didn’t even list them all.  The whole security implications have me bamboozled so I left those out.  That doesn’t mean they don’t scare me.

The unintended reality of this bill’s passage would a stifling of cultural communication, technological innovation and intellectual expression.  I know the Internet communities were a little tickled with yesterday’s results and I agree, go team!  However, if you look at who is for this bill:  Motion Picture Association, Recording Association, all the pharmaceuticals, the U.S. chamber of Commerce and just about every media player you can think of.  AND then you look at who is against it: American Library Association, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, FB, all online bloggers, Mozilla, Wikipedia and so many others.  On both sides are ranged huge amounts of money, talent and human power.  This isn’t over.  We have until the vote on January 24th to make our voices heard.  You want to count?  Speak the heck up!  And by speak up I mean email or call your U.S. House of Representative or your U.S. Senator.  Do it everyday.  I like my Internet the way it is, thank you very much.

And that’s my two cents.

Life after SOPA