Could This Be the Real Death of the Internet?

For most of us, the Internet affects every aspect of our life. “The Internet has become the public space of the 21st century – the world’s town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee house, and nightclub,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated in February 2011. Indeed, the Internet serves more functions today than it ever did before. Flickr users share and manage their photos, Etsy members sell their unique, hand-made goods, and Vimeo filmmakers and video creators upload their works to share. If you haven’t heard of these sites and would like to check them out, you may not have that chance if the Stop Online Piracy Act, known as “SOPA,” is enacted.

SOPA is aimed at protecting original materials by blacklisting and removing entire websites that enable or facilitate internet users to acquire pirated materials. Basically, one bad apple – or, more precisely, one website that might allow someone to access a bad apple – can spoil the bunch.

For the websites accused of violating SOPA, the penalties are severe. The “offending” websites could be barred from doing business with online payment services such as PayPal, could be barred from inclusion in search results on search engines such as Google, and hosting websites such as YouTube could be barred from even being accessed by internet service providers (ISPs).

In 2009, a website posted an image of an advertisement by Ralph Lauren as part of a story. Ralph Lauren’s lawyers demanded the image be removed because they alleged it was infringing material, the website refused and that was the end of the issue because of the “fair use” provisions that allow limited use of copyrighted materials without acquiring permission. However, under SOPA, the ending would be vastly different: the website would not only be forced to take down the image, it would be blocked by ISPs and cut off from its sources of payment. And because the term of protection for a copyrighted work can be, at least theoretically, extended indefinitely, the amount of material SOPA would affect is enormous.

While copyright protection is important for free speech as it protects creators and their creations, it is crucial that protective measures remain consistent with our constitutional principles. Moreover, protections must never be so unforgiving that they restrict lawful, original content from being created or shared. The broad language of SOPA would allow removal of non-infringing content along with infringing content – in violation of the First Amendment. Original materials could be removed from the Internet only because they were accessible from a website that also provided links to infringing content. Furthermore, SOPA has no due process protections. The State Department could order ISPs to block access to the accused website and it would be done – no questions asked and no courts involved.

SOPA was presented for markup (process by which a committee debates, amends, or rewrites proposed legislation) by the House Judiciary Committee on December 15 and 16, 2011. Fifty-five amendments were submitted, and over half of them have been reviewed by the end of the two-day session. One rejected amendment, proposed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), sought to remove the provisions in SOPA that target search engines and ISPs. The amendment was voted down in a 22 to 12 vote, and foreshadows a grim future where SOPA could be passed. The House Judiciary Committee adjourned on December 16, 2011, and will continue debate when Congress returns from its winter recess in early 2012.

We are facing a major turning point in the history of the Internet. It is important for the members of the House Judiciary Committee hear from their constituents. We need a law that targets copyright violations while still protecting creativity and freedom of speech. Please urge Congress to oppose SOPA today.