Where did SOPA come from and what could it mean for the Internet? Find out here.

In October 2011, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) introduced a bill to the House of Representatives called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Although there hasn’t been much mainstream media coverage on its debate and potential impact on the Internet as we know it, tech blogs have been buzzing since the Fall over the positive and negative consequences that could result from this bill being passed. Here’s a breakdown of what the bill says and what it means for you, and ways to contact your local Congressional representatives with your response.

In a nutshell, SOPA grants the federal government the power to blacklist any website that has even one instance of copyright infringement posted on it. That means, if a website creator tries to post an illegal version of a bootlegged movie on their website, it will be shut down. Supporters of the bill say this will better protect the economy and will generate jobs while curbing the loss of property online. Additionally, it will help protect the U.S. from copyright infringement from foreign websites.

On the surface, the bill is a positive attempt to do exactly what it claims to do – stop online piracy. However, some language in the bill is ambiguous and general, which raises concerns for many about the overreaching power it may grant the government, if the bill is passed. For example, the bill is written in such a way that allows the government to shut down a website if a visitor to a website posts illegal content in a comment. If on a Google Blogger blog someone’s comment includes a video clip that is really from a network television show that they don’t have rights to publish, not only could the blog be shut down, but under SOPA, the government would have the right to shut down Blogger.

One loophole that the bill doesn’t address is accessing websites via the IP addresses assigned to websites. SOPA only censors the domain name services (DNS) so if there is an illegal copy of a song on YouTube, they could potentially shut down the address youtube.com. But, say the IP address of youtube.com is 74.125.224.76. Only the DNS of YouTube is blocked, meaning the provisions of SOPA give the government the ability to block youtube.com but not 74.125.224.76. Many critics of the bill believe this is not only another reason why the bill should not receive consideration in the House, but also an indication of the lack of technical know-how by those representatives who helped write and sponsor the bill.

In general, the bill is backed by companies who have financial interests in movie making and the music industry, which lose money every year due to online piracy. The bill is opposed (in general) by private sector Internet based companies, such as Rackspace, Mozilla, Google, Twitter, Facebook, and many more. Of course, none of these companies want online piracy any more than those who are supporting the bill want online piracy. The concern and opposition to SOPA is due to the level of punishment that the government could employ, based on the actions of one person.

Initially, the Internet hosting company GoDaddy supported and helped write the SOPA bill. When that news got out, many Internet users were outraged that a company who’s business came from the very people that could be most detrimentally affected by the passing of the bill could be in support of it. Thousands of users began switching their domains to other hosting companies. The movement to leave GoDaddy originated on Reddit.com on December 21st, where users also declared December 29th as “Move Your Domain Day.” Ben Huh, founder of the incredibly popular Internet meme sites like icanhascheezburger.com and knowyourmeme.com, tweeted that he would move his 1,000 domains from GoDaddy unless they revoked their SOPA support. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales also announced via Twitter on December 23rd that Wikipedia would be leaving GoDaddy due to their SOPA support.

GoDaddy announced on December 23rd that they no longer supported SOPA. However, many users were unconvinced of the sincerity of their announcement, and still planned on moving their domains. Namecheap.com (another hosting site) offered a $2 donation (initially $1, changed to $2) to the Electronic Frontier Foundation for every domain transfer they received on December 29th. They received over 32,000 transfers that day. Later, reports circulated that GoDaddy was blocking domains from being transferred from their site to other hosting companies, which GoDaddy refuted. On December 29th, GoDaddy released a press release, stating they now oppose SOPA.

SOPA
isn’t the first attempt at legislation to censor the Internet. In May, the Senate was presented with a similar bill called the PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011). Simply put, it is a new version of another Internet censorship bill that was previously shot down in 2010 by the Senate, called COICA (Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeit Acts). Essentially, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) and SOPA are advocating the same level of involvement by the government on the Internet, but SOPA is presented for the House to vote on and PIPA is presented to the Senate to vote on. Oregon democratic senator Ron Wyden blocked PIPA from going to vote on the Senate floor after it was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

SOPA was presented to the House of Representatives in October, and the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing about the bill in November. The committee overwhelmingly approved the bill (22-12), meaning that it will go to the House for a vote. However, due to the concern expressed by the public and several congressmen, there was a meeting to propose amendments to the bill on December 15th. On the second day of debate, after numerous amendments had been rejected, the committee adjourned and resolved to resume the discussion in 2012.

Regardless of your position on SOPA or PIPA, this issue provides an excellent platform to contact your local congressmen with opinions for or against these bills. The following website provides the names and contact information for every representative throughout the country: opencongress.org. Opencongress.org also provides an extensive list of companies that support and oppose SOPA.