The English version of Wikipedia may have gone black in a one-day protest, but SOPA isn't going away. U.S. Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and one of the sponsors of the House version of the Stop Online Privacy Act, announced January 17 that he expected the committee to restart work on SOPA in February. This follows the announcement over the weekend that the White House opposed the bill as it currently stands, and the subsequent concessions by its sponsors to remove one of the (particularly egregious and misguided) technical provisions.
What are the provisions of SOPA that remain, and what harm could they do? In short, SOPA—and its Senate cousin, the Protect-IP Act (PIPA)—would effectively give some companies the power to block other websites with only an accusation.
The law targets web sites registered outside the U.S., though its provisions affect many U.S. companies as well. It gives the courts power to force Internet service providers (ISPs) to block their customer’s access to any web site that has been accused of engaging in infringing activities. Courts can also force advertising networks, financial transaction providers (such as PayPal) and search engines to stop doing business with the infringing web site—in effect, to block it from the Internet. (The Congressional Research Service has put together a very readable legal analysis [PDF] of an earlier version of the Senate bill.)
But the real power in the bill is not in the powers it gives the courts. Rather, the bill creates a system of incentives whereby the mere accusation of copyright infringement is enough to block a site entirely. The law gives immunity to ISPs, financial transaction providers and search engines who voluntarily block web sites accused of infringement. And if they don’t block those sites? Then they, too, may be held legally culpable for the infringing activity. The laws also contain no penalties or disincentives for copyright holders to avoid falsely accusing others of infringement.
It’s not too hard to imagine how this will work in practice: Large, litigious copyright holders such as the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America will issue floods of copyright violation accusations to everyone from Google to Fark. These middlemen can choose to investigate each claim and decide whether to comply with the blocking notice, but the lawyers upstairs will always recommend that when in doubt, block. The law would create a new class of gatekeepers who will effectively decide what can go online and what can not. It will coronate a corporate censor for the Internet.
Expect these ill-considered provisions to live on in the new SOPA and PIPA bills.