SOPA shelved for now, but what does the future hold?

Patrick Lambert summarizes the latest action on the SOPA controversy, with lawmakers moving over the weekend to shelve it while "outstanding concerns" are being evaluated.

SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act that has been going through the US House has been covered a lot in the past couple of months. All that attention came to a standstill before the holidays when the members of the committee held a hearing, and then the whole process was paused until later this month. And the latest action occurred just over the weekend, as the White House responded to SOPA and similar legislation under consideration:

While it was the first official acknowledgement of the bills, it was made clear that the President could veto any bill that does: "not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet".

This comes only days after a controversial DNS-blocking mechanism that ran at the heart of the SOPA bill would be scrapped until the U.S. House Judiciary can, "further examine the issues surrounding this provision". It was the kick in the teeth that the online community was hoping for.

But the White House's comments made it clear that while under this U.S. administration, SOPA, PROTECT-IP and the OPEN bills will not pass.

This is good news to many, and heads off the January 18 deadline, when a number of major websites had threatened to institute a blackout in protest of SOPA.

First, a bit of background, if you haven't followed the latest developments about the bill itself. SOPA is, as usual for these cases, a misnomer. It was drafted by Hollywood, and lobbied up into Congress to become the latest and most broadly reaching bill so far to allow companies to remove copyrighted material from the Internet. Right now, the US has laws at both the Federal level and State level covering copyright. It's illegal to take someone else's work and put it online, without their permission. Then, you have the DMCA, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which expedites the process of asking someone to pull content down. This system works pretty well, although it's prone for abuse. Basically, if a content creator finds his or her content hosted on another site, then all they have to do is file a DMCA notice, and by law the site has to pull that content down. Most large sites follow suit, and some, like YouTube, even have automated ways for big companies to pull down content in a very quick fashion.

However, not all sites comply, which is what brought ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch of Homeland Security, to take direct action, in what may be a very dubious way to interpret the law. Basically, ICE receives complaints from copyright holders, then goes to domain registries, and redirects domains to their own page, without ever advising the sites themselves. They've done it to hundreds of sites so far, and it has caused quite a few controversies. They seem to be going mostly after torrent sites that link to some pirated movies, and sites selling counterfeit clothing. The problem, of course, is that there is no due process, no notification to the owners of the sites, and everything is kept secret because of national security. On top of it all, ICE considers all "Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.Error! Hyperlink reference not valid., Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. and Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.Error! Hyperlink reference not valid." domains to be US-based, regardless of where the site actually is, or where the domain name is registered, because the master registry for all these top level domains is VeriSign, a US company.

So right now, we have laws, we have the DMCA, and we have Homeland Security unilaterally going out and pulling domains when asked for, with a secret court order, and no apparent due process. But of course, SOPA would go even further. The problem, at least for Hollywood, is that foreign sites don't have to comply with the DMCA, since that's a US law, and ICE can't easily touch them either. So far, the industry has lobbied the US government to send diplomats and push countries to pass similar laws. But that doesn't always work, so SOPA was created. In simple terms, SOPA would change the way the Internet actually works, at least inside of the US. It would work at the DNS level, and would create a great American firewall, in a very similar way that China's currently operates.

Basically, the law would force ISPs and DNS providers to implement a way to block any request made for any foreign sites that is deemed to be "accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement". Also, it would force all payment providers such as PayPal, Visa, Mastercard, and more, to cut off any payment services to any individual involved in those sites. Finally, it would dramatically increase damages and add prison terms for copyright infringement, along with adding "streaming" to the list of offenses, instead of just hosting or linking to hosted content. It would basically create a great divide where the US Internet would work differently than the outside world, and that has a lot of companies and technology enthusiasts worried.

Whether or not it happens now, the January 18 blackout date included rumors that Google would do a full day where their services would be down, and instead they would show a SOPA-related notice to users with other sites like Wikipedia and Reddit following suit.

Now that a serious blow has been struck to the original SOPA by shelving it for the time-being, what "outstanding concerns" are likely to be addressed for it's rebirth? What would a workable anti-piracy act look like? Let us know what you think the future holds for backers of SOPA.


Patrick Lambert has been working in the tech industry for over 15 years, both as an online freelancer and in companies around Montreal, Canada. A fan of Star Wars, gaming, technology, and art, he writes for several sites including the art news commun...

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