What Is the SOPA Bill, and Why Is It Causing Such a Ruckus?

By Veronique Greenwood | November 17, 2011 1:00 pm

SOPA infographic
An infographic produced by the organizers of American Censorship Day describes one of the arguments against the SOPA bill.

It’s been a busy couple of days in the discussion of free speech in the United States, and if you’re a regular reader of tech blogs, chances are you’ve begun to hear about one of this week’s issues: the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. This bill, intended to help stem online piracy and backed by companies like Disney, Viacom, and Time Warner, has set off the alarms of many sites and companies on the internet because it essentially allows the government and private corporations to censor entire sites that they fear are illegally distributing copyrighted material. Many companies—including Google, Twitter, Facebook, AOL, Zynga, Mozilla, LinkedIn, and Ebay, which took out a full-page ad in the NYTimes with a letter to the congressmembers involved—and numerous sites and civil-liberty groups—including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Demand Progress, Creative Commons, Wikimedia, and others—have spoken up against the act. Some sites that would likely be among the blocked, including Tumblr, are self-censoring in protest. A coalition of Internet civil liberty and IP groups declared Wednesday, November 16—the day that hearings began on the SOPA bill—American Censorship Day and are orchestrating a campaign to have people contact their representatives to speak against the bill. They developed this infographic that explains why they are worried about the bill (excerpted above).

The gist of the opponents’ argument is this: While the problem of online piracy is real, the way this law is written, it means that the government may make email companies and internet service providers monitor links you send through email or on social networking sites. It also means that someone from the government or a private corporation can cause a whole site to be removed from Google results and block people from viewing it, as well as preventing online payments from being made to the person who owns the site. It is, essentially, a law that creates a government blacklist, a la the Great Firewall of China.

For more details, check out coverage at The Atlantic Wire, BoingBoing, Ars Technica, Business Insider.

  • Cara

    Just an FYI, it’s called the Electronic Frontier Foundation, not the Electronic Freedom Foundation. http://www.eff.org

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    Regardless of how benign the government promises to be, how they are only going after the worst abusers, the screws will only tighten if this goes through as is. That is a guarantee.
    Remember, after the worst 10 are gone, there is a new worst 10, always.

  • Jared

    How do they think this will stop piracy? All someone would have to do, is find the ip of a website, and type the ip in instead of the URL. Then the DNS block wouldn’t work. because you are not requesting a DNS. Translation: This wont stop piracy. This will hurt the regular people and business owners more than anything. This is Censorship… PERIOD!

    We are doing the same thing China, Iran and Syria have done. Youtube as we know it… Bye Bye! Google as we know it… Bye Bye!

  • Hemo_jr

    SOPA is a law under consideration by the U.S. House of Representatives that would allow the bypassing of due process and the abridgment of constitutional rights to force the shutdown of web sites by the mere accusation by a third party. And in doing so, it breaks the internal structure of the Internet. It puts the tools of repression pioneered by repressive regimes such as Communist China in the hands of not only government officials, but essentially anyone with an ax to grind.

  • Mephane

    @32 Jared:

    Indeed, so far pretty much all measures against piracy turned out to only hurt legal customers, while those commiting actual piracy continue to do so unencumbered. This is but a latest attempt in a long series of failed anti-piracy measure, among them the infamous DRM…

  • Matt H.

    Does the U.S. really want the people who sued the Camp Fire girls for singing “row, row, row your boat” at day camp to be able to shut down web sites just by registering an accusation of infringement?

  • Brian Too

    Let’s be clear. This is a corporate agenda that pushes a business problem, piracy, onto the citizens.

    While the business problem is real enough, one has to question whether the cure is worse than the disease. Does a business problem rise to the level of a societal problem? Sure this will suppress piracy. What other things will it suppress? And will the corporations rush to make redress and protect the citizens thus trampled?

    Given that correcting any overreach of this legislation will not “add to the bottom line”, call me a skeptic. Some responsible corporations will to be sure. But overall, it sounds like placing too much power in the hands of the business community.

  • James

    SOPA represents yet another wave of the fascism which is sweeping away any remaining vestages of freedom and democracy in this county.And no,my use of the word fascism,is neither incorrect in context, nor the result of exaggeration.The essence of fascism is simply the placing of,buisness/economics, and or, the drive for monetary profits above all other social values and governmental concerns.

  • DeBunkTheMyths

    Why aren’t these companies taking the responsibility for creating further protection for their media being pirated through software rather than making the whole world responsible for their problems?

    Sound like another George Soros backed plan. Another Shadow Party move to further damage the United Stated economically in the guise of helping a few MAJOR corporations. And one more step from the Soros Shadow Party to control the minds and masses of America.

  • Will A.

    Hypothetical situation. If I were to start a business, say an online lemonade stand that uses PayPal as a form of purchase. I would post a webstream of how I make the lemonade naturally on the website. If while I make the lemonade, I was listening to the radio or had the television on in the background, than according to this bill I would be illegally streaming copyrighted material on my website which could get my website effectively removed from access in the US, of which I live in, thereby killing my business. Without giving me a say whatsoever.

    The bill has a good intention, but it is much to broad in it’s wording. It leaves a tremendous amount of room for interpretation.

  • Kage S.

    @Will A– your hypothetical results are mildly flawed. The net result is not that you wouldn’t get business from the US, because it’s blocked there, you would get nothing, period.

    A block of that nature originating here in the US will be echoed worldwide.

    Oh, and for the record, if you’re seen planet-wide, there’s a significant likelihood that you will face jail time as well, up to 20 years and $10M for *every* infraction, and there’s nothing in the bill that defines exactly what qualifies as an infraction.

  • Screw SOPA

    I even hate the idea of the “SOPA” act.

  • Jaime

    SOPA is just such a stupid idea because there are bigger problems on the internet right now like online bullying i mean do you see people killing themselves over piracy no


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar