You may have noticed some of your favorite sites are down today. No Reddit. No Wikipedia. The Google Logo looks like this:
SOPA stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act. So does this mean that Reddit, Wikipedia, and Google are all for online pirates? Hardy har har and a bottle o' rum, lets download episodes of Glee illegally!
Actually, no. The thing is, SOPA is a noble pursuit. It's an attempt by the government to prevent people from stealing and distributing copyrighted material for free. If you're a writer, and actor, a singer, a painter, or basically anyone who has ever created any unique work, you have an interest in making sure you control the distribution of that work-- especially if it's a multimillion-dollar movie.
There is already a process by which content creators can get copyrighted material removed: they submit a request to a site to take down the copyrighted material, and if the order is refused, only then do the courts get involved. Owners of websites that feature user-generated content are not forced to keep track of the hundreds of uploads that people make to their sites everyday. Only when a request is filed do they need to find and remove that content.
SOPA defenders say this different from how copyright protection works in the real world. Those found knocking off Louis Vuttons in Chinatown don't get to withdraw their merchandise for sale and avoid prosecution. People found selling pirated DVDs on the street or filming new movies in theaters are put in jail.
SOPA seeks to even that playing field. It's treating websites the same as those guys.
The problem is, it's the wrong analogy. Website owners aren't that guy selling fake Jean Paul Gautlier cologne on the street... they are the street. SOPA is essentially threatening to close down Times Square because there's a guy with a suitcase full of fake Rolexes walking around there. That's what makes no sense.
Sites like Reddit, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, thousands of others are merely virtual streets on which strangers and friends exchange information. If you hold the street responsible for the actions of a few of those people, we're all being punished. Can you imagine Facebook being shut down because one guy in Florida posted a video of The Little Mermaid? That's what SOPA will allow to happen.
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Meanwhile, what happens to that mermaid-loving Floridian? Absolutely nothing. The street is shut down, and the criminal simply goes distributing his wares on another street.
The thing is, the folks on the hill have no clue. They don't understand what the big deal is. This is because 100% of them were born before the internet as we knew it existed. This is because the majority of them have assistants do all their web research and emailing. This is because most of them think the internet is a connected series of tubes.
To these people, each website is a person, responsible for what appears on it. And every one of these websites is exactly the same. They can all easily filter out any copyrighted material without affecting their performance.
Is it easy to filter out that stuff? Go on YouTube. They've been employing copyright filters for years, and stuff stiff slips by. People reverse the image. They film off a TV. They recut a longer piece into shorter segments. YouTube can ban people, they can ban whole IP addresses, but they can't keep the ship airtight. In trying to do so, they may inadvertently ban parody videos, tributes, other things legally broadcasted under copyright law's the "fair use" exemption. Is it really fair to shut YouTube down if a My Little Pony episode sneaks through their filters? And keep in mind, YouTube is one of the largest sites out there, with tons of employees. What chance does a little website have?
The RIAA went after thousands of individuals for sharing their music over sites like Napster, Kazaa and Limewire-- which was boneheaded and fruitless, but at least legally defensible. SOPA makes criminals out of innocent people.
SOPA would make website owners deathly afraid of their users... in some cases, it could cause them to shutter their pages entirely, rather than face jail time at the hands of overzealous prosecutors. That's what SOPA critics are calling censorship. And I'm inclined to agree.