How the Stop Online Piracy Act Could Affect You

NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Copyright and anti-piracy laws are generally only of interest to a few select parties – the entertainment industry, file-sharing sites and Internet users who make a habit of downloading pirated content, for instance. But a pair of bills making the rounds in Congress right now have attracted considerable attention and opposition from a broad swath of individuals and businesses.

The bills in question are the PROTECT-IP Act, currently in the Senate, and the Stop Online Piracy Act, currently in the House, which aim to put an end to piracy by giving copyright holders the power to shut down a website that hosts pirated content. SOPA, which has gained more traction on Capitol Hill recently, has caught particular hell from Internet users and major tech companies, and on Tuesday a coalition of companies including Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Twitter put aside their differences to take out a full-page ad in The New York Times objecting to the proposed laws.

“Unfortunately, the bills as drafted would expose law-abiding U.S. Internet and technology companies to new and uncertain liabilities, private rights of action, and technology mandates that would require monitoring of websites,” reads the letter. “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.”

The companies’ letter naturally focused on the potential impact on their businesses, placing themselves in counterpoint to the entertainment industry, which has claimed substantial losses stemming from music and movie piracy. But far from the intense lobbying battle taking place in Washington, ordinary consumers – including those who have never pirated material – could find themselves impacted by the bill.

That’s because the bill gives copyright holders unprecedented power to force search engines and Internet service providers to make websites essentially disappear. A website found in violation of copyright law would be removed from search results, while an ISP would be forced to use domain name system filtering to make it so the Web address no longer leads an Internet user to the website. The website would still exist, and be accessible directly by its IP address, but simply putting in a traditional Web address would not lead a user to the site.

That means that only those who have the Web knowledge to get around those roadblocks would be able to access the allegedly infringing site, while the average Internet user would be left to wonder why his or her favorite site had disappeared overnight. Meanwhile, many security experts have officially come out against implementing this sort of system, arguing that it would undermine the security of the Web.


In theory, such measures are primarily targeted against file-sharing websites that allow the downloading of pirated material. But in practice, a law-abiding Internet user who never visits such sites could be harmed by the legislation all the same, as pirated material pops up on all manner of sites, from YouTube to Facebook. Under the bill, a copyright holder who found illicit links or materials on one of those sites would be able to file a complaint with the advertisers and payment processors who work with the site, and those parties would then have just five days to respond.

In other words, any site that allows user-generated content – a list that includes every social media site – would find itself bending over backwards in response to copyright complaints. It’s not hard to see how users could wind up burdened by such a state of affairs.

“[The bills] could force tech companies to pre-screen and monitor all user comments, pictures and videos – effectively killing social media,” says the NetCoalition, an industry group representing numerous tech companies. In other words, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter could be forced to implement new rules restricting activity so as to avoid the costly legal action that would result from someone posting copyrighted material.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for digital rights, goes into more detail about how the new rules would hurt popular sites that rely on user-created content. It points, for instance, to video site Vimeo, noting that the site would likely have to implement rules against certain classes of videos popular there.

For now, much of the debate has taken the form of a lobbying battle, with the tech companies arguing that the rules would place an undue burden on their operations and the entertainment industry arguing that they’re necessary to combat the costly piracy epidemic. But with the proposed legislation holding the potential to make the Web less secure, harder to navigate and less friendly to user contributions, consumers could wind up being collateral damage in the battle against piracy.

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