Congress is currently weighing legislation that could have serious implications for Huffington Post, Google, Facebook and Twitter. In other words, for the very future of the Internet.
In case you're unfamiliar, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its counterpart in the Senate, PROTECT IP (PIPA), are the latest industry-driven efforts to crack down on illegal pirating of movies, music and software, as well as sites that stream television programming. Hollywood means business, too -- so far the music and movie industries have reportedly spent $91 million in just the last year lobbying to get the legislation through Congress. Both the National Football League and Major League Baseball also support SOPA and PIPA.
It's understandable that copyright and content creators would lobby Congress for increased protections. Online piracy still exists, despite the successful passage of the music and movie industry's last effort, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). It's still relatively easy for anyone with a computer to figure out how to find a copy of a newly released album or movie for free or for a user to post such content.
But it's also easy for users to capture clips of music, movies or games and post them in discussion on the online message board or comment sections of our favorite sites, which is part of what makes the Internet so great. The DCMA allows sites that host user-generated content safe harbor from copyright claims, but the new legislation could end such protections for these sites.
The legislation will allow the Department of Justice to block any offending websites. The legislation lets the Attorney General get court orders to prevent DNS server operators from resolving the domain names of sites in question to their corresponding Internet protocol addresses (DNS filtering). Search engines would also be required to remove or block links to any sites that are accused of infringement. Finally, payment processors and Internet advertising services would be required to cease doing business with any sites that even contain links to online streaming sites. And even if ISPs, advertisers and banks cut off services for an accused site, they will receive full immunity under the new law.
In case I've lost you, this legislation seriously messes with the structure (and content) of the Internet in order to squash any piracy websites that existing law hasn't been able to kill. The legislation is so flawed that a group of prominent Internet engineers said that the sort of DNS filtering being proposed is "not technically feasible" and jeopardizes Internet security advances that have been in the works for 15 years. They explained that, in order to comply with court-ordered mandates in copyright cases, Internet service providers would have to choose between complying with those mandates or maintaining DNS security. In other words, the new law would jeopardize total Internet security.
So if users of a website community post too many copyrighted clips or links to websites streaming games online, rights holders such as the leagues could immediately take action to cut off fans' access to the website, which could lose access to its advertising revenues. Of course, this is a worst-case scenario, but who knows how aggressively the leagues (along with movie studios, record labels and software companies) will seek to clamp down on perceived infringement. At the very least, it creates a terrible chilling effect and will make for serious (if not fatal) compliance and legal costs for many sites.
Even after all this, of course, users will still seek out sites that offer pirated music and movies and sports fans will continue to visit sites that illegally stream games. These "work-arounds" will always exist. Only with this legislation, users will be more likely to go to malicious sites that leave them more susceptible to identity theft and cyberattacks.
Needless to say, the "Internet" is not going down without a fight. The head of a prominent public interest group just yesterday told me that she'd never seen anything like the online efforts to defeat SOPA/PIPA. For instance, the "Dump GoDaddy Day" campaign, which targeted GoDaddy because of its support for SOPA, resulted in enough domain transfers that the company admitted as much and claimed it was reversing its position. And at least 1,000,000 Americans have already emailed Congress.
When the Senate reconvenes on January 23, one of the first orders of business will be to move Protect IP to a floor vote. There are a few Senators standing in the way, promising to filibuster the bill, which means that 60 Senators will need to support voting on the bill to end the filibuster. If that happens, the bill will likely pass. If there isn't enough support to end the filibuster, the bill will die or will have to be reworked. Fans of the Internet as we know it should be hoping for the latter.
It is possible to protect the rights of copyright holders and content creators without drastically reshaping the Internet, stifling creativity and potentially shuttering some of our favorite sites. This legislation isn't it.
Follow Brian Frederick on Twitter: www.twitter.com/brifred