Special Feature: What is SOPA? And Why Are So Many Internet Companies Against It?

In the past few days we have all heard and read about SOPA. We have read how some big-name tech companies are either for SOPA or against it. So, let us first break it down and explain in layman terms what SOPA exactly is.

SOPA = Stop Online Piracy Act

This is the official name but has also been referred as the PROTECT IP ACT.

The US House of Representatives will be debating on SOPA next month and if the bill gets passed it will basically mean that ISP’s will have the right to block any domain/s if the content hosted under that domain violates copyright. Let me explain it in a little more details.

Site A has infringed a copyright law. Going by what SOPA proposes, “services connected or tangential” to Site A will be the ones to face the music first and not Site A. So any advertiser or payment processor (like a PayPal) will have to remove Site A from its services within five days or be considered to be violating the law. This is not all. A search engine (like Google), which has indexed Site A, will have to remove it from its listings and the DNS registry, which directs queries regarding Site A to the correct IP, will have to remove the same from its registry. Both the search engine and the DNS registry have to do so within five days or they shall be considered to be violating the law.

SOPA fails to comprehend the basic difference between physical theft and ‘content theft’. Content theft is making a copy and the original is still intact. It is still a serious offense and requires adequate measures to tackle it, but blocking off domains is not one of them. Creating a ‘blacklist’ for domains is unacceptable in free society. Plus, we need to keep in mind the internationally accepted internet infrastructure standards worldwide. Tweaking a small cog in this wheel can eventually lead to the breakdown of the system. Censorship is not the remedy for content theft. It is not the remedy for anything. Just because dirt has been brushed under the carpet does not mean that the dirt does not exist.

The most disconcerting fact is that if SOPA is made a law it will mean (if not exactly that) that UScopyright law can be imposed anywhere in the world. Any site, even if it is not registered or hosted in US or even if the content (in question) is not stored in the US, can be blocked. SOPA also puts service providers (like a Google or PayPal) on the same level as Site A, which is absurd to say the least. A few days back 120 internet/tech companies supported SOPA and there is a list of illustrious counterparts who are opposed to it.

In India we have already seen similar intentions on part of the government. Minister of IT & Communications, Mr. Kapil Sibal, recently called for censorship of social media sites. The reasons varied from hurting religious sentiments to preventing riots??!! Censorship has been a problem in India for quite sometime now (this is the first time it is entering the internet domain), with regards to the film censor board or the banning of books and art works of eminent artists. India is fast becoming a major market for a number of internet companies. Be it Facebook or Google they all understand the potential of the Indian market and in such a situation they will be ready to comply with censorship rules set by the Indian government. If SOPA does become a law it will provide someone like Kapil Sibal with more ammunition to ask for social media censorship.

No doubt that copyright infringement and inflammatory content on social media are serious issues, but blocking or censoring is not the solution. You block one domain, a hundred other can spurt. You censor Facebook and Twitter, people move on to Tumblr. Till date no serious crimes have occurred due to social media. On the other hand the power of social media was on display during Arab Spring earlier this year. Draconian laws like SOPA or censoring social media sites, as Kapil Sibal has proposed, will only provide certain authorities the power to control the flow of information. This is not acceptable in free society.

A complex situation can often requires a simple solution, but not necessarily a simplistic solution. SOPA is a simplistic solution.

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