Update: This article was originally published on LearnVest on Wednesday. Since then, SOPA and PIPA have been dominating the headlines. Here's the latest news you need to know: After the protests by Wikipedia, BoingBoing, Reddit and others, eight lawmakers (including two co-sponsors) dropped their support of the bills, but the bills are not dead yet. In fact, backers of the legislation, which include the Motion Picture Association of America, vowed to fight on. After its blackout, Wikipedia, in a message on its site, said it would continue its protest against the bills. The Senate will vote on PIPA next Tuesday, January 24, and SOPA will be debated in the House in February. Protesters have planned a call-in day to Senators for Monday, January 23.
Tried looking up “SOPA” on Wikipedia?
Yeah, it may not be your day. Wikipedia is having a site "blackout," or site shutdown, on Wednesday, a protest against SOPA and PIPA, the Congressional bills intended to thwart internet piracy.
(OK, fine, the one page on Wikipedia that’s not dark is its page about the blackout and its relation to SOPA and PIPA.)
But why did Wikipedia, Reddit and the Cheezburger humor sites "go dark," or, in the cases of Google and Mozilla Firefox, "don black" by changing the appearance of their sites?
Critics are concerned that they might limit free expression and hurt the internet—both sites and surfers—instead.
What SOPA and PIPA Would Change
Currently, the laws around intellectual property start with the assumption that websites are innocent. For example, YouTube isn’t responsible for keeping tabs on every single video that’s uploaded, even if some include pirated material. Once that material is flagged, YouTube needs to take it down immediately.
But the new laws (SOPA in the House of Representatives and PIPA in the Senate) would assume guilt and allow copyright holders to take action against the site by going to its advertisers, even if the site transgressed unknowingly. That means a mere accusation of copyright violation could cut off a site’s funding.
For an overview of what the legislation is and what it would do on a broad scale, read our story on whether SOPA protects artists or censors the internet.
How This Could Affect You
In addition to potentially dissuading tech innovation and deterring sites from hosting user-submitted content, this legislation could hurt consumers and amount to censorship of the internet.
In addition to allowing copyright holders to go after websites that host pirated content, the bills allow the U.S. attorney general to slap offshore websites with court orders, too. Bye-bye, Chinese subtitled versions of “How I Met Your Mother.”
The real kicker is that, if a foreign website keeps transgressing, the U.S. should, according to the bill, “take technically feasible and reasonable measures designed to prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States to the foreign infringing site.” In other words, the government could censor your internet and make it physically impossible for you to go to certain websites.
Would SOPA Hurt Your Personal Cyber Security?
A little-noticed portion of the proposed law could require internet providers to monitor their customers’ traffic and block specific websites. Yes, that means that Verizon could have de facto access to your browsing data. One of the methods being contemplated is "deep packet inspection," which is the method many believe China uses to censor the internet. This involves “watching,” in a sense, which websites users visit in order to block certain ones.
Additionally, SOPA and PIPA could actually hurt cyber security instead of helping it. One of the methods that these bills might end up using to keep web surfers from visiting off-limits sites is the very same tactic that hackers use to deceive internet users and commit crimes. Called DNS blocking, it redirects users to another page from the one they wanted. The tactic could be used by the government to send users to a page about why piracy is bad—or, by hackers to send you to a page that gives your computer viruses.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The House is waiting for the Judiciary Committee to consider SOPA, whereas the Senate Judiciary Committee already unanimously passed PIPA in May. It’s been awaiting floor action ever since.
Although we think that preventing piracy on the internet is important, we’re concerned that these bills take things too far, infringing on our free speech rights and even our cyber security. What do you think?
If you’d like to protest this legislation, contact your representatives here and here. Alternately, you can visit a group working against American censorship, here.
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