SOPA: The Bill That Wants to Break Your Internet

Your Modern Warfare 3 YouTube videos could soon be outlawed; your Skyrim Daedric weapons montage too. Here's why.

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What if live-streaming video of your mad StarCraft 2 skills were outlawed? Or that funny YouTube video you made using Halo Forge could be shut down by Microsoft? Think this sounds preposterous? We're actually dangerously close to such an Orwellian scenario if legislators and their corporate supporters get their way.

This story was originally posted on November 23, 2011 and has since been updated on January 18, 2012 to reflect new information on the subject.

Maybe your only exposure to the Stop Online Piracy Act or the Protect IP Act is Jim Sterling's heartfelt "f*** you" to the bill's supporters on Twitter and in his Jimquisition video on The Escapist (Warning, the language in that video is NSFW so you might want to pop some headphones on before watching), or maybe you've been following the news on our sister site CNET. Many of us are not completely in the loop on these divisive pieces of legislation, though, so here's a quick primer on the bills that could "break the Internet."

What is SOPA? And is PIPA something different?

[SOPA] could punish any and all Web companies for hosting anything considered "unauthorized" copyrighted content, including video, images, music, and software.
It's the "Stop Online Piracy Act" and was introduced last October by House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) as a bill designed to…big shock here…stop online piracy. It was put forward as a companion to the Senate's "Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act," which is often referred to as the "Protect IP Act" (Senate Bill S.968.). The idea was to protect stuff like movies, games, and other content from being ripped off and distributed for free by foreign websites, which are dubbed as ominous-sounding "rogue sites." Though well-intentioned, the bills could punish any and all Web companies for hosting anything considered "unauthorized" copyrighted content, including video, images, music, and software.

You can read the SOPA bill in its entirety here. The PIPA document can be found here.

Why are people getting so worked up about this?

In short, it's because in their current form, the bills seem to be all about empowering corporations to censor the Internet. Those who oppose the bill claim it establishes a system of domain blacklisting pioneered by evil, tyrannical Internet-haters in China and Iran.

The intended scenario would go as follows: When an IP holder, like Electronic Arts, has reason to believe that a site is distributing pirated copies of its software, it has a process that it can expedite to eliminate the threat to its business. Sounds fair enough, right? In real terms, though, things can be executed in a far more draconian fashion because of the way the bill is written and structured. Theoretically, if Electronic Arts felt that a website was carrying an unauthorized "performance" (like streaming video content or even images) from one of its games or that there were posts on the site encouraging piracy of the company's games, a complaint could be filed with the Department of Justice, and the site's domain could be blocked. The registrar would be required to take down the site's domain so that the URL would no longer work (although, interestingly, the IP address would still work), service providers would be required to block subscriber access to the site, payment processors and advertising networks would be required to stop doing business with it, and search engines would be barred from linking to it. In short, the site would be well and truly screwed.

Here's the glib interpretation for us gamers: As they are written, in addition to providing a nuclear option to retaliate against pirates, the legislation can be interpreted as outlawing the creative use of gameplay video on sites like YouTube, Twitch.tv, Livestream, Ustream, and even GameSpot.

Does it really stand a chance of being passed?

For now, that means that if the bills do become law, ISPs won't have to perform DNS redirects of sites the attorney general concludes are enabling copyright theft.
Originally SOPA was considered to be on a "fast track," but not everyone in Washington, D.C. thinks SOPA is the right solution for the problems it's designed to address. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said that the bill is "extreme" and will die on the House floor. "I don't believe this bill has any chance on the House floor," Issa said. "I think it's way too extreme; it infringes on too many areas that our leadership will know is simply too dangerous to do in its current form."

On January 13, 2012 Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said that he is removing a major provision that would force changes to internet infrastructure to fight online copyright infringement. The announcement came a day after Senator Patrick Leahy, the main sponsor of similar legislation in the Senate, announced the same move. For now, that means that if the bills do become law, ISPs won't have to perform DNS redirects of sites the attorney general concludes are enabling copyright theft. "After consultation with industry groups across the country, I feel we should remove Domain Name System blocking from the Stop Online Piracy Act so that the committee can further examine the issues surrounding this provision," Smith said in a statement. "We will continue to look for ways to ensure that foreign websites cannot sell and distribute illegal content to U.S. consumers."

President Obama's administration issued a public response to petitions protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act on January 14, 2012 which stated, "While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet."

Who is for it?

Hollywood movie studios have been looking for support in shutting down download sites for years, so it should come as no surprise that the Motion Picture Association of America is giving this one the thumbs up, but it's not the only one backing SOPA. A list of supporters for the bill can be found here and there are some names on that list that may be of interest to GameSpot readers. Of note is the Entertainment Software Association, the industry group that counts many major games publishers among its members, including Electronic Arts and Nintendo. Though many of the individual publishers listed have declined the opportunity to comment over the past few weeks, the ESA itself issued the following statement. "As an industry of innovators and creators, we understand the importance of both technological innovation and content protection, and do not believe the two are mutually exclusive. Rogue websites - those singularly devoted to profiting from their blatant illegal piracy - restrict demand for legitimate video game products and services, thereby costing jobs. Our industry needs effective remedies to address this specific problem, and we support the House and Senate proposals to achieve this objective. We are mindful of concerns raised about a negative impact on innovation. We look forward to working with the House and Senate, and all interested parties, to find the right balance and define useful remedies to combat willful wrongdoers that do not impede lawful product and business model innovation."

Microsoft and Apple are both members of the Business Software Alliance, which is an organization originally identified as being in support of the bill, but which has since withdrawn that support. BSA president and CEO Robert Holleyman stated that the bill "needs work" and that "valid and important questions have been raised about the bill." Since this occurred, Apple has not issued any further statement, but Microsoft has come out firmly against the bills, stating "We oppose the passage of the SOPA bill as currently drafted. We think the White House statement points in a constructive way to problems with the current legislation, the need to fix them, and the opportunity for people on all sides to talk together about a better path forward."

Who is against it?

Who are the champions of Internet truth, justice, and the American way? Unsurprisingly, pretty much anyone with a vested interested in having the Internet work the way it should, so that's anyone from big-name Internet companies to everyone that posts anything online or depends on the Internet for their livelihood.

Google, Facebook, Zynga, and Twitter placed an ad in the New York Times last November protesting SOPA, and open source browser champion Mozilla turned its homepage black in support of the protest. Tumblr set up a page where its users could sign up and receive a phone call from the company with talking points about SOPA. From there, the company connected users with their U.S. representatives to air their concerns about the bill. At the end of the campaign, a total of 87,834 calls were placed to representatives. The average call lasted 53 seconds, while the longest came in at 31 minutes, the company said. A total of 1,293 total hours were spent talking to representatives.

Further protests today (January 18, 2012,) including a Wikipedia blackout and home page alerts at Google.com and Amazon.com, along with "blackouts" at sites such as Reddit, BoingBoing and WordPress have prompted some senators contacted by our sister-site CNET to abandon their earlier enthusiasm for the Protect IP Act. A Senate floor vote is scheduled for January 24.

"I'm withdrawing my co-sponsorship for the Protect IP Act," said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican. Sen. John Boozman, an Arkansas Republican, "will be withdrawing his name as a co-sponsor" of Protect IP, a spokesman told CNET today. Rep. John Carter, a Texas Republican who is listed as a SOPA sponsor, "reserves judgment on the final bill," a spokesman said. "He's certainly not saying pass the bill as-is -- there are legitimate concerns in this bill."

If I think it sounds nuts, what can I do about it?

There are a variety of places you can express your support to protest the bill. First of all, you can call your congressperson to voice your concerns. If you don't know how to do that, you can find the contact information here. You can also send a letter to your congressperson by visiting the American Censorship Day site. A simple path to express your objection to the bill is to fill out the petition that Google is promoting from its homepage.

The Entertainment Consumers Association is rallying people on its site.

The most effective path is to share information. Not everyone is aware of this bill, so help educate them by sharing this article and other resources linked here with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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