The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was recently introduced in the House of Representatives and while the bill is intended to stop online piracy, it will in fact give corporations unprecedented power to censor websites.
Specifically, SOPA contains the following provisions that worry Internet free speech advocates:
- The Attorney General will be able to cut off websites from the domain name system – meaning they will virtually disappear them from Internet.
- Foreign websites would have to submit to a US jurisdiction in order to contest the Attorney General. This would be a costly and timely process for most websites who will probably not be able to afford to undertake this process even if they are innocent.
- Corporations will be able to force payment processors and advertisers alike to cut off any infringing websites’ money supply – even if just a small portion of the website site is allegedly infringing on the copyright.
- Companies who voluntarily cut off suspected infringing websites will have immunity along with virtually no oversight.
However, critics of the bill contend that while Google and Facebook may have enough money and lawyers to fend off any lawsuit or court ordered shutdown, newer social networking sites in foreign countries would probably not. This means that a website hosting videos, even if the videos draw attention to alleged human rights abuses or other issues, could be targeted by an overzealous copyright holder who then uses one alleged violation to strangle an entire website.
Moreover, circumvention tools could be under threat from SOPA as Virtual Private Networks, proxies or anonymisation software might be deemed illegal under the law if they are used to get around its censorship mechanisms.
Finally, critics contend that the US State Department’s support for the bill undermines its own Internet Freedom Initiative. On the other hand, it was also the US State Department that led the charge to stop WikiLeaks by pressuring US companies to stop doing business with the website. After Paypal, Mastercard and Visa complied, WikiLeaks was financially crippled.
Nevertheless, its worth noting that the WikiLeaks cables have also revealed that the State Department has been lobbying other countries for aggressive new copyright laws just like SOPA.