'SOPA': Internet Piracy Bills in Congress Threaten Core Values

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SOPA would decimate this safe harbor by taking lawful businesses, including social networking, cloud storage services and online communications tools, and putting them at risk of being declared "dedicated to theft." This is because, although supporters of the bill claim it aims to ensnare only egregious pirates, any site is treated as a theft site if it either "facilitates" or "avoids confirming" infringing acts by users. This puts any site in danger if it allows users to post content to its servers -- because someone, at some point, is going to place some infringing material on the site. Under the bill, it would make no difference if the site intended to encourage piracy or not. Nor would it make a difference if the site's owners have an impeccable record of removing infringing material when notified.

Think that kind of overbroad reach is not as big a deal as it seems, because prosecutors will only go after the real bad guys? SOPA's enforcement powers aren't reserved for prosecutors. The bill also creates a new private cut-off system, which gives copyright holders the ability to put a site in a kind of financial stranglehold. Payment and ad networks would have to cut financial ties to any site within five days of receiving a mere allegation from a copyright holder that the site is facilitating infringement (or even just not doing enough to stop it). All that can happen without court intervention.

Under this kind of dubious legal regime, all sorts of bad things start to happen. Sites that deal with user-generated content are effectively forced to become content police and put the breaks on any kind of innovation that further empowers users. The cost in resources and legal work to maintain that policing effort would cripple even the largest, most successful sites and create an atmosphere of uncertainty that would chill the creation of new online communications tools.

The current open Internet would begin to fold in on itself. Online services and websites would be obliged to pry into the activities of their users, using intrusive monitoring systems to try and ferret out any whiff of infringing activity. Your ISP would be peeking over your shoulder, watching your every keystroke.

Why? SOPA would demand that it "prevent access" to sites fingered by the Justice Department as "rogue" websites. That kind of backdoor mandate to spy on users requires the same privacy-robbing "deep packet inspection" technology that has drawn fire in the online advertising world.

Impact Beyond Borders

While much has been made of the potential dire consequences for free expression here in the United States should these bills pass, there is potential harm to the work of global human rights activists as well. The power of social media tools and platforms to fuel dramatic change was demonstrated in the "Arab Spring" earlier this year. There is a danger that these same tools could be ensnared in the broad net of U.S. anti-piracy legislation, jeopardizing the continued development of powerful new forums for free expression and political dissent.

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