A Breakdown of What SOPA Actually is and How it Affects You

No doubt you’ve noticed that big black bar blocking out Google’s logo today. It’s there to protest the upcoming Protect IP Act and Stop Online Piracy Act, currently in the Senate and House of Representatives respectively. There’s been an uproar (that might be an understatement) on the Internet about the two bills and unfortunately, very few people really understand what SOPA and PIPA are other than that it will censor the internet. We’re going to take a look at how the bills will affect you.

What do SOPA and PIPA intend to do?

Official word is that bills are meant to provide tools to copyright holders and law enforcement so that they can protect their intellectual property rights.

Sounds reasonable, what’s the big deal?

Absolutely nothing! However, the devil is in the details and the bills as they currently stand have been worded very vaguely and ambiguously. There’s a high potential for abuse, and in their current state won’t even be that effective at stopping the crimes they target.

Websites are already required to remove copyrighted content if presented with a properly filled out DMCA takedown request. SOPA and Protect IP contain no provisions to actually remove copyrighted content, instead they focus on the censorship of links to entire domains. The internet has always been a place that was free and open to discussion and sharing, the prevalence of the numerous forums and blogs is a testament to that. The pressure that would be put on these web properties would be enormous. The cost and maintenance alone to make sure no one links to censored domains in the future will be an ordeal to say the least.

The legislations goal is to require private U.S.entities to enforce restrictions against foreign sites but does nothing against the infringement itself. All of the enforcement can and will be worked around by sites that are focuses on copyright infringement. Piracy won’t go anywhere, however theU.S. will have entered into an era where the federal government is actively regulating and censoring the internet.

As the bills currently stand, they are inviting abuse from all comers. The broad language grants power to both the Attorney General and plaintiffs like the MPAA and RIAA. Given the history of these entities it is painfully obvious that they can and will stretch laws to the breaking point. The bills are sorely lacking key points to prevent abuse.

  1. Technically sound definitions need to be present.
  2. There’s virtually no input from the technology sector. Legislation as complex as this should not be drafted by someone who has little working knowledge of the internet.
  3. Checks and balances need to be present ensuring that due-process can be invoked before, during, and after any action is taken.
  4. Clear repercussions for entities utilizing the legislation in an abusive manner.

Not in the U.S? You will still be affected

Many of the sites you use (Wikipedia, Facebook, Google etc.) are all affected if the bills are signed into law and will be required to hide offending domains from you. If a site outside of theU.S.is blocked, it could suffer financially or even be bankrupted by the loss of U.S.traffic and revenue.

Are there any differences between Protect IP and Stop Online Piracy Act?

The two bills are very similar. SOPA is from the House of Representatives, while PIPA is from the Senate. Either or both bills may pass a vote in their chamber of congress on their way to becoming law. Both have to be defeated to end this threat.

 Does this affect PPC  Advertising?

This is a complex topic so let’s get into the powers that SOPA and PIPA will grant, most of which go to the Attorney General.

Under SOPA your site can have action taken against it if:

  1. The site is U.S.directed and
  2. “committing or facilitating [sharing] the commission of criminal violations punishable under section 2318, 2319, 2319A, 2319B, or chapter 90, of title 18, United States Code.” (those sections primarily deal with copyright infringement and counterfeit products.)

Under PIPA your site can have action taken against it if:

  1. The site is used “primarily as a means for engaging in, enabling, or facilitating the activities” of copyright infringement or counterfeit products; or
  2. The site is designed by its operator “as a means for engaging in, enabling, or facilitating the activities” of copyright infringement or counterfeit products.

If the above criteria is met the Attorney General’s office will:

  • Require U.S.sites and search engines to remove all links to the foreign site.
  • Require U.S.advertising services to no longer serve ads linking to the site, or display ads on the foreign site.
  • Require U.S.payment networks to cease any transactions between the foreign site andU.S.customers.
  • Require U.S.service providers to block customer access to the foreign site (DNS blacklisting).

You can see how open to interpretation this bill is.

The very nature of the internet revolves around the sharing of content. Advertising is a huge chunk of that content. The requirements of ad networks and payment networks include a “no duty to monitor” paragraph. This paragraph says that the networks are in compliance with the requirements if they take the actions described on the order that is served. It should be noted that “search engines” have no such paragraph. This would mean that search engines can, technically, be required to continually monitor and prevent new instances of links to foreign sites. Coming from the point of view of the drafter of the legislation, this makes perfect sense. Requiring a site to scrub all the links to a foreign site is a useless effort if the links will simply pop up again the next day.

SOPA and PIPA have been proposed to get a handle on piracy, however the way the bills go about it is not acceptable. Censorship should not be tolerated in any form. Contact your representatives, people.

Useful links for more information:

List of sites that have blacked out in protest on January 18th, 2012

Information on H.R. 3261 – Stop Online Piracy Act

Information on S. 968 – Protect IP Act

Keep track of where your congress members stand

Look up and contact your representative



  1. Thanks for this digest. I saw somewhere it makes distributing copyrighted content a crime, punishable by a minimum of 5 years ? Do you know anything about this ?

    1. That is correct. The word DISTRIBUTION is key, if you are in the US and you even link to copyrighted content you will be served with a take down notice without due process. As far as punishment goes I am not aware what the consequences would be. The first step would definitely be seizure of your web property, however.

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