Despite attempts by opponents to prevent it from reaching the House of Representatives, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) moved to the House Judiciary Committee this morning for debate. The bill's supporters, who most prominently include organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America, Recording Industry Association of America, the AFL-CIO, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argue that the only way to stamp out piracy overseas is to target the internet service providers, advertising networks, and payment processors that do business with foreign websites accused of illegally hosting copyrighted content.
The companies that would be most affected by SOPA, such as Google, Facebook, and eBay, have come out strongly against the bill, joined by free speech advocates such as the ACLU and Human Rights Watch. They contend that the bill is overreaching and would stymie online entrepreneurship by forcing any site accused of knowingly or unknowingly hosting or linking to pirated content to sever those links within five days or face litigation. Both SOPA's detractors and advocates have spent millions of dollars in lobbying and advertising campaigns.
To help you navigate this complex and important issue, we've compiled a list of the most important things you need to know about SOPA right now.
How Would SOPA Work? If the court issues a restraining order or injunction against a "foreign infringing site", defined in the bill as "a U.S.-directed site" that is "committing or facilitating the commission of criminal violations", a number of measures automatically kick in that affect service providers, Internet search engines, payment network providers, and Internet advertising services.
To begin with, SOPA would render offending sites effectively invisible. The bill would require that Internet service providers, upon receiving the court order, prevent the domain name of the foreign infringing site from resolving to its Internet Protocol address (a process known as DNS blocking). This would make a website such as eBay unreachable by typing "www.ebay.com" into the URL bar. Similarly, Internet search engines such as Google and Yahoo! would be required to remove the foreign infringing site from their search results.
SOPA would place a stranglehold on foreign infringing sites' revenue as well by forcing payment processors and advertising networks to cease doing business with those sites. Payment network providers such as Visa and PayPal would be required to "suspend [their] service from completing transactions involving customers located within the United States". Internet advertising services would likewise have to cease providing advertisements and advertising revenue to the infringing sites.
Who Supports SOPA? As it stands now, the bill enjoys bipartisan support in the House, with 32 representatives sponsoring SOPA. The bill is also widely supported by the media and entertainment industries, pharmaceutical companies, and other organizations that rely on intellectual property rights. The AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce both spoke out in support of SOPA as well.
What Are the Arguments in Favor of SOPA? These organizations, and the bill's co-sponsors, contend that sites that engage in copyright and patent infringement attract 53 billion visits every year and threaten the $7.7 trillion that intellectual property-reliant industries contribute to the GDP -- yet because these sites exist outside of the United States, the government has been largely powerless to prevent the spread of online piracy. Supporters of SOPA argue that forcing companies in the U.S., which direct traffic to these websites and generate their revenue, to sever their ties with foreign infringing sites is the only way to effectively combat intellectual property theft.
Who Opposes SOPA? Despite the bill's broad support, a number of organizations and legislators on both sides of the aisle oppose SOPA. At the forefront of the opposition stand Internet companies such as Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and eBay. These companies are joined by free speech and human rights organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the ACLU.
What Are the Arguments Against SOPA? Opponents argue that the bill greatly overreaches in its attempts to snub out online piracy. As the bill stands now, they contend, entire sites can be targeted for litigation even if only a small portion -- or a single user -- hosts or links to copyrighted content. Opponents also contend that SOPA will stifle innovation on the Internet, as it opens online businesses to an endless stream of litigation from copyright holders. Moreover, they argue, using DNS blocking to prevent access to infringing sites is far too reminiscent of state-controlled Internet censorship in countries such as China, Syria, and Iran -- and too easy for tech-savvy users to work around, as DNS blocking does not prevent users from accessing sites by directly entering their Internet Protocol addresses into the URL bar.
Where Does SOPA Stand Now? As of 10 a.m. ET, the bill had moved into the "markup" process in the House Judiciary Committee, in which potential amendments to the bill are proposed. Committee members expect the hearing to last through Friday.
UPDATE: The House Judiciary Committee indefinitely postponed its consideration of SOPA on Friday to investigate claims that the DNS blocking system proposed by the bill will create security risks. Lamar Smith, chairman of the committee and the bill's primary sponsor, stated that the hearing would resume as soon as Congress is back in session, but did not give a more definitive timeline.