Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

What is SOPA, and why should it matter to you?


In a paper released on October 25, 2011, the United States Copyright Office set forth its plan to battle the growing digital piracy problem over the next two years. The Office planned to address rogue websites, namely those that engage in “online infringement of U.S. books, films, music, and software, including infringement that originates overseas,” as well as the illegal streaming of copyright-protected works.


What came next? SOPA.

Coincidentally, the very next day, October 26, 2011, the Stop Online Piracy Act was first presented to the House of Representatives, and was quickly backed by pretty much every major entertainment company, as well as the Association of American Publishers (AAP). (A similar piece of legislation, known as the Protect IP Act, was introduced to the Senate in May of that year.) The AAP reportedly said that “foreign-based ‘rogue’ sites represent a thorny problem for publishers because they are often out of reach of U.S. courts…publishers support legislation that would require ‘enablers,’ including ‘collaborating ISPs, search engines, pay services and advertisers to end their associations with these pirates.'”

Are you terrified yet? Some say you should be.

While the digital piracy problem is definitely one that should be addressed by Congress, many argue the current version of this bill is a form of censorship. Opponents of the bill, (that include Google, Facebook, Tumblr, Wikipedia,, and the Cato Institute) say the legislation would grant Congress the ability to enforce an injunction prohibiting search engines from listing the domain names of accused rogue websites, as well as barring credit card companies and banks from doing business with them.

According to Publishers Weekly, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently told MIT students the bill “was ‘draconian,’ and that the provision…[forcing] ISPs to remove URLs from the Web was ‘also known as censorship, last time I checked.'”

Since the controversy began late last year, larger cultural issues have emerged that threaten to overshadow what was the main issue of digital piracy. Just this week, New York Times reporter David Carr wrote about the “cultural divide” at the heart of the argument, citing comments from SOPA critic and Kickstarter founder Yancey Strickler:

‘The schism between content creators and platforms like Kickstarter, Tumblr and YouTube is generational,’ [Strickler] wrote in an e-mail. ‘It’s people who grew up on the Web versus people who still don’t use it. In Washington, they simply don’t see the way that the Web has completely reconfigured society across classes, education and race. The Internet isn’t real to them yet.’

In a scathing letter to Congress titled, “Dear Congress, It’s No Longer OK To Not Know How The Internet Works,” blogger Joshua Kopstein expressed his outrage that the same people who profess to have no substantial knowledge about how the Internet works are now seeking to make huge changes to its infrastructure while also refusing to consult technology experts. “The chilling takeaway of this whole debacle,” Kopstein explained, “was the irrefutable air of anti-intellectualism; that inescapable absurdity that we have members of Congress voting on a technical bill who do not posses any technical knowledge on the subject and do not find it imperative to recognize those who do.”

On the other end of the generational and cultural spectrums, Forbes contributor Anthony Wing Kosner defends the importance of the bill against criticisms made by millennials and so-called “digital natives.” In response to the Kopstein letter, he writes, “there is something a bit blasé about the millennials lack of concern about the impacts of piracy on the U.S. economy. It is indeed in all of our interest for content to be paid for, otherwise American consumers are just subsidizing the cost of the rest of the world’s entertainment.”

Another recently declared supporter, the Electronic Software Association (ESA), whose members include Sony, Nintendo, and EA, offers its reasoning for siding with the bill:

As an industry of innovators and creators, we understand the importance of both technological innovation and content protection, and do not believe the two are mutually exclusive. Rogue websites — those singularly devoted to profiting from their blatant illegal piracy — restrict demand for legitimate video game products and services, thereby costing jobs.

So why should this matter to you? As publishing professionals, it will impact how the content you create, edit, promote, or sell is distributed online; as consumers, it will impact how you buy content online; and as pirates, it might be harder for you to download free stuff for a little while, until your favorite rogue site figures out how to bypass the new restrictions.

If you are one of these millennials, as Kosner labelled all people who grew up in the digital age, how do you feel about being labelled unconcerned about the impacts of piracy on the United States economy? Is that necessarily true of every person who opposes this bill? Are there any millennials out there among you, dear readers, who can make a counter-argument?

Note: The SOPA legislation was put on hold during the holiday recess amidst the more pressing congressional issue of the payroll tax cut extension at the end of December 2011. More to come on SOPA when it is reintroduced for vote in the House in the coming weeks.

6 comments on “What is SOPA, and why should it matter to you?

  1. Kelsey
    January 9, 2012

    Finally. An article about SOPA that actually makes sense. Thank you for this.

  2. Alex S
    January 9, 2012

    I enjoyed this article, but when asked if I’m terrified yet, I have to answer no if I’m going off of this article alone. This article does an excellent job of introducing some of the flaws with who is introducing this legislation, but what’s missing from this picture is exactly how SOPA works and how far-reaching SOPA is.

    To answer the first question, one has to understand that when you go to a website, something called a DNS server translates the site’s name into an actual address. For example, your friends know John’s house is 802 Liberty Ave, so if you say that you should meet at John’s house, they know where to go. Now, imagine John’s house is in another country and you try to send a letter to him through a mail carrier and the letter’s address just says “John’s House” (not a perfect analogy, but it gives the general idea). Whoever the mail carrier is, according to SOPA, has to go, “Oh! John is playing a football game on his TV without the express written consent of the NFL. Let’s throw this in the trash.” He never gets your letter. But, if you put down his actual address, 802 Liberty Ave, it’ll get sent to him without trouble.

    Back to reality, what this means is that ISPs and search engines will be required to block sites that MIGHT be linked to infringing content. However, the only thing they can block is the name, since the actual hardware and its address is in another country. The content is still there and you can still get to it. You just can’t call it by its old nickname. On top of this, other companies, organizations, and individuals can make claims that their content is being infringed upon and essentially get an entire site shut down with little to no evidence. This is what terrifies me.

  3. Leah Thompson
    January 9, 2012

    Alex, this is why you’re CompuJesus. And that’s also a more elegant phrasing of my reaction to SOPA, which is “they can’t really do that, can they?”

    But what you’re saying is that by blocking sites, the government would mostly just make it difficult for themselves to police infringement suits. (Hmm. Shoot yourself in the foot a few more times, eh?) And as I understand your analogy, the only way to get to sites would be to search with somewhat obscure keywords. I’m having a SNES “A B A B up down up down” flashback, picturing a kind of situation where you need cheat codes to get on certain sites…

  4. Keira Lyons
    January 10, 2012

    Alex: thanks for that excellent explanation of exactly how the bill will change how we navigate the Internet. And you’re absolutely correct–that makes it much scarier. But it is also just another example of the ineptitude of this Congress. It really shouldn’t try altering something it knows virtually nothing about without properly investigating how far-reaching the effects of its actions may be.

  5. Pingback: Let’s talk about SOPA. Again. « appazoogle

  6. Pingback: For opponents of SOPA and PIPA, a weekend victory « appazoogle

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