Ranger Today Q&A: The Stop Online Piracy Act
Wednesday, Jan. 18, the web site Wikipedia "went dark" and the online search engine Google covered its logo with a black box. Both sites were protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Ranger Today asked UW-Parkside Associate Professor and Computer Science Department Chair Stuart Hansen about the pending legislation and the reasons it has stirred such extraordinary reactions.
Ranger Today: What is SOPA? Does it have the potential to "censor the Internet?"
Professor Stuart Hansen: There are really two bills under consideration: Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). Both bills are well intentioned. The Internet has made it incredibly easy to share copyrighted work and other intellectual property. This creates all sorts of problems, e.g. we have all read stories about how hard it is for musicians and traditional music distribution companies to make a buck, because the music can often be found for free on the Internet.
However, the bills are written with very broad language. For example, the Attorney General can take action against sites that are "offering services in a manner that enables copyright violation." The site doesn't have to be dedicated to copyright violation, simply enable it. This means that any site that has the ability to upload audio or video files, or even still images or text, would be in violation of the law. This includes sites like YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook and GMail.
The Internet is really a tool, not the problem. We don't restrict the use of cars because cars are often used in bank robbery getaways. We shouldn't be restricting the Internet just because it can be used for illegal activities.
RT: Would internet service providers like Google really be affected if SOPA became law?
SH: Yes. Internet service providers, the folks that run the wire to your house, will be required to block your access to sites. Search engines will be forced to remove all references to the offending sites from their indexes. Ad providers will be required to stop providing ad service to the site. Payment providers will be required to terminate service to the site.
RT: What difference, if any, would SOPA make to consumers?
SH: When you say "consumers" I think of people shopping on the Internet. For these folks, there may be fewer providers of goods and services, but they would still be able to buy things. The situation may be different for people consuming other Internet resources. If Facebook gets blocked because of SOPA millions of people would find their Internet usage affected.
RT: How does this differ from the situation a few years ago with Napster?
SH: These bills are much broader. They directly try to control the shape of the Internet we can see and use. They address all intellectual property, not just music.
RT: Is it possible that SOPA could force some Internet service providers out of business?
SH: Yes. Web based companies could easily be forced out of business. For example, Paypal and ad networks would be required to stop doing business with sites when they receive a claim against them. However, there is no requirement in the law that the accused receive a copy of the claim. That means that all business might grind to a halt on a site and the owners will have no idea why.
RT: If people wanted to voice their opposition or support for SOPA, what can they do to help kill it or pass it?
SH: Contact your legislators. Our voices are already being heard. PIPA co-sponsor Florida Sen. Marco Rubio pulled his name from the bill Wednesday, and SOPA co-sponsor Arizona Rep. Ben Quayle pulled his name Tuesday.
RT: Is SOPA this year's Y2K?SH: Not really. SOPA and PIPA are political issues. Y2K was a technical issue.