UPDATE: Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) withdrew the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill on Friday, January 20, 2012 - just a few days prior to the final House Judiciary Committee vote on January 24, 2012.

Imagine a world without Google, Facebook or YouTube. Although hard to conceive, this is a real worry for critics of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). This bill was on the fast track to a final House Judiciary Committee vote on January 24, 2012. Just days before the historic vote, the SOPA bill was canceled.

What is SOPA?

SOPA is an online piracy bill introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in October 2011. Bipartisan supporters and opponents debated the bill December 15-16, 2011. The Committee adjourned without a vote until January 24 - the end of winter recess.

Under SOPA, the Department of Justice and copyright/trademark holders would have the authority to take down any website with illegal - or allegedly illegal - online content, including foreign (non-U.S.) infringing websites (called "rogue sites" by proponents) trafficking in counterfeit products like software, prescription drugs and movies. With an accusation and court order, the DoJ could order Internet search providers to block any site in question.

In Section 102 of the proposed bill, SOPA calls for specific actions against rogue websites with the exception of domains ending in .com, .net and .org.
  • Internet service providers (ISP) would be prohibited from resolving domain names of foreign infringing websites.
  • Search engines would be required to exclude foreign infringing website search results.
  • Payment providers would be required to close payment accounts of foreign infringing websites.
  • Advertising services would be unable to accept ads or payment from foreign infringing websites.
Section 103 of SOPA mirrors the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) - but without the safe harbor protection that protects many online service providers from prosecution. This provision would allow copyright holders to order advertising networks and payment processors to close infringing accounts within five days. Section 104 provides legal immunity for ISPs that block infringing websites.

SOPA, also known as the Enforcing and Protecting American Rights Against Sites Intent on Theft and Exploitation Act (E-PARASITE Act), relates closely to the Protect IP Act (PIPA or S. 968) - also set for a January 24 vote. On January 20, 2012, PIPA was tabled until further notice.

Who wants it, and why?

The U.S. is the largest global intellectual property (IP) producer, and SOPA has garnered support from more than 400 organizations. SOPA’s broad supporting spectrum includes cable and satellite TV, education, entertainment companies, big Pharma, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and police and firefighter unions.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, rogue websites undermine innovation and steal "more than 19 million American jobs." Supporters insist that by disarming rogue websites, SOPA would stop U.S. intellectual property theft and piracy.

SOPA’s supporters and political co-sponsors also have deep pockets, according to Politico. During the 2010 election cycle, 32 bill sponsors received more than $1.9 million in combined campaign contributions from the entertainment industry, versus $524,977 from the technology industry.

Other supporting SOPA organizations include the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), Pfizer, Revlon, NBC Universal and the Country Music Association (CMA).

Who is fighting it and why?

Known to opponents as the Internet Blacklist Bill, the Great Firewall of America and the Internet Death Penalty, SOPA has revealed a continental divide between IT and entertainment. Critics are concerned that like the Protect IP Act, SOPA's strict regulations against piracy and copyright infringement could kill freedom of expression online.

Concerned about the SOPA’s broad language and potential abuse, the bill has elicited a backlash from the IT community. Tech giants (like Google, Facebook and Twitter); Internet engineers; website owners and users view the bill as overly limiting to innovation and the open Web infrastructure.

SOPA opponents include:
  • Web founders, like Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google; Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post and Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape
  • Public interest and advocacy groups, nonprofits, industry associations and think tanks, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Brookings Institute, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)
  • Software companies, websites and online services - like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, eBay, Twitter, Mozilla, AOL, Reddit and Tumblr
SOPA opponents have also raised concerns related to the Domain Name System (DNS) filtering mechanism, which, according to cybersecurity experts, could undermine Internet security under the Domain Name Server Security Extension (DNSSEC). Additionally, tech-savvy users know how to circumvent DNS roadblocks. Even if a domain name is blocked or blacklisted, website functionality continues via the site’s numeric IP address. This suggests that SOPA would have little control over those who truly want to seek out pirated online content.

Deep financial pockets notwithstanding, SOPA critics have a loyal user base and deep relationships that could trump the lobbying influence of supporters. Thousands of Americans have signed a petition calling for a SOPA veto by President Obama.

In December, Bob Boorstin, Google’s director of public policy, stated that, if SOPA is passed, YouTube "would just go dark immediately." Ironically, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter are considering a nuclear Internet blackout on January 23 - just one day before the SOPA vote hits the floor.

Why should you care?

SOPA’s language may be sweeping and vague, but this bill is in it for the long haul. SOPA is fair game for anyone that uses the Internet - from occasional surfers to power users. Inevitably, Web users could experience a dramatic shift in daily business and personal affairs. Life without Google, Facebook or Twitter is a seemingly unfathomable scenario, as are potentially deeper cultural and economic ramifications.

An alternative in the works is the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN Act), sponsored by House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Under the OPEN Act, copyright claims would be handled by the International Trade Commission (ITC). At the time of writing, key SOPA supporters, such as the RIAA, are against the OPEN Act.

Where it stands and what you can do

Since the bill’s introduction, the tech community has been busy educating the public on a mass level. In a short time, tech giants have engineered a full-fledged anti-SOPA campaign.
  • Google testified against the bill.
  • With Tumblr’s help, more than 87,000 users called local elected officials to register concerns.
  • In late December 2011, Reddit led Dump GoDaddy Day to boycott the popular domain registrar. Initially, GoDaddy was on the SOPA bandwagon. However, after approximately 37,000 domains left or threatened to move their domains, GoDaddy retracted its support.
  • Keeping it bipartisan, Reddit users are now going after SOPA’s congressional supporters.
Led by Google, Tech giants are asking everyday Web users to take their concerns public. Pro and anti-SOPA constituents still have time to boost mass awareness on both sides of the fence.

Here is what you can do before January 24:
  • Visit SOPA Track, a tool where users can search for representatives and senators by state or street address and see where they stand on SOPA (and the Protect IP Act). SOPA Track provides details about special-interest lobbying by pro- and anti-SOPA organizations.
  • Call your elected officials.
  • Send a letter via the American Censorship Day website.
  • Spread the word. Email friends and family. Express your view by blogging and posting on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn.

The Future of SOPA

Will SOPA be passed in its current form? And if it is, will it have the dire consequences some critics are predicting, or will it serve to protect intellectual property, as its supporters contend? As we count down to January 24, Techopedia will continue to post SOPA updates.

UPDATE: Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) withdrew the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill on Friday, January 20, 2012 - just a few days prior to the final House Judiciary Committee vote on January 24, 2012.