“Imagine a world in which any intellectual property holder can, without ever appearing before a judge or setting foot in a courtroom, shut down any website’s online advertising programs and block access to credit card payments.” 

–Nate Anderson on Arstechnica.com

Image: justgrimes via Flickr

I’m guessing you’ve never heard of SOPA– or if you have, you’ve probably been ignoring all the buzz surrounding it.

Maybe you “aren’t into politics.”

Maybe you just don’t understand the bill.

Or maybe you just don’t think your voice will make a difference.

Hate to break it to you, folks, but SOPA (and it’s equally unsavory twin, PIPA) will affect the entire Internet as you know it.

Facebook? Yep.

Twitter? Yep.

Tumblr? Youtube? Wikipedia? Pinterest? Digg? Reddit? You bet.

It will even affect search engines, your Internet service providers, your online payment processors like PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard– it will even affect global Internet security.

But on a larger scale, it will affect something vastly more important: your voice on the Internet.

What is SOPA (and Why is it Such a Big Deal)?

We could spend paragraphs agonizing over the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act– or we could just have you watch this fantastic video from FightfortheFuture.org:

[iframe http://player.vimeo.com/video/31100268?byline=0&portrait=0 400 225]

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

What SOPA is Trying to Do

“Laws are not like lines of PHP; they are not easily reverted if someone wakes up and realizes there is a better way to do things. We should not be so quick to codify something this far-reaching.”

— Jane Wells on the official WordPress News blog

Image: donkeyhotey via Flickr

To Congress’s credit, SOPA really did start with some legitimately good intentions.

SOPA’s main target are “rogue sites” overseas who steal copyrighted content (movies, music, etc.) and offer it illegally to consumers. The end goal of the bill? Protect copyright rights for Hollywood.

Sounds legit, right? No one’s going to stand up and defend foreign pirates and their right to steal content. Hell, I write content for a living: I’m not about to go trashing anyone’s rights to intellectual property.

The problem, then, isn’t SOPA’s goals: it’s the means by which they plan on enforcing the law — and the collateral damage the bill will cause to the entire Internet.

What SOPA is Actually Doing

Image: Jose Mesa via Flickr

“As leading brands of the Internet, we strongly oppose offshore ‘rogue’ websites and share policymakers’ goal of combating online infringement of copyrights and trademarks.

However, we don’t believe that the solution lies in regulating the Internet and compromising its stability and security.

We do not believe that it is worth overturning a decade of settled law that has formed the legal foundation for all social media.

And finally, we do not believe that it is worth restricting free speech or providing comfort to totalitarian regimes that seek to control and restrict the Internet freedoms of their own citizens.”

— from a statement by Markham Erickson, executive director of NetCoalition (members include Google, Yahoo, and more)

The enforcement methods granted by SOPA are kind of like killing a gnat with a sledgehammer. The act uses language vague enough to affect any site, not just foreign “rogue sites” (as Congress intended). Though the legislation is targeted towards a small minority, the bill will affect how the entire Web functions. In short: it is the wrong tool for the wrong job, and it’s a tool that will affect the non-pirating majority far more than these illegal “rogue sites.”

To make matters worse, SOPA is largely a piece of legislation that will change how the entire Internet works (hence the hashtag #DontBreaktheInternet), but it was written without any consultation or consideration from the tech industry. As illustrated in the widely-shared article, “Dear Congress, It’s No Longer OK to Not Know How the Internet Works,” members of Congress have expressed everything from outright bafflement to boredom regarding some of the technical aspects within the bill– technical aspects, of course, that will affect both the tech industry and everyday Internet users.

Law professors have called the bill unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment; security advisors (including former Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Stewart Baker) have expressed concern over cybersecurity on the Internet at large.

How SOPA Would Affect You

Image: Andréia Bohner via Flickr

Enough large-scale idealism: let’s dive into how SOPA and PIPA would affect you. Here are seven ways this legislation would affect your everyday life.

1. Anyone Can Kill Your Website — and Your Livelihood.

Under the proposed legislation, all someone has to do is file a complaint of copyright infringement about your site and:

  • Your ad campaign is shut down (choking off your ad revenue)
  • Your Payment Processors cut you off (no more PayPal or credit card payments from your website)
  • Search engines remove you from their listings (again, you don’t exist).


  • Your reputation is tarnished,
  • New visitors can’t find you or your site via search engines,
  • Your revenue ceases.

This happens without legal consult, without a courtroom visit, without a full-scale investigation…what ever happened to being innocent until proven guilty, Congress?

Furthermore, if it’s determined that your site didn’t have a copyright infringement in the first place, you can’t sue the accusing party for wrongfully shutting down your livelihood.

2. You’ll Be Held Accountable and Punished For Someone Else’s Actions.

If someone else posts a link to a site with a copyright infringement– even if it’s just on one page of your site, in one comment — you’re still considered the guilty party. Your entire site is flagged, your PayPal restricted, etc.

Someone posts a link to a Taylor Swift cover song on YouTube in your comment section? Your site can be shut down. It makes no difference that you didn’t post it.

3. You Can Go to Jail.

The bill calls for a penalty of up to five years in prison for a copyright infringement. Post a Hipster Ariel picture, photoshop a movie still, put together a dance routine to “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” or sing a cover of Adele and you could face five years in prison.

Five years in jail for this video? Really, Congress?

[iframe http://www.youtube.com/embed/JtawDJtcRg8 560 315]

Way harsh, Tai.

4. Your Favorite Sites Will Censor What You Post…

Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube will have no choice to censor what you post or risk a lawsuit or a site shutdown. Picture the FCC operating on your social media streams. I picture some moustached moderator painstakingly watching all of my video blogs just to make sure I don’t have “Moves Like Jagger” playing in the background. And even if I did have Moves Like Jagger (I don’t, for the record), I deserve the the right to show off those moves to my friends and family without Facebook rejecting my video for fear of lawsuit.

5. …While Others Will Be Forced Out of Existence…

Do you think sites like Reddit, Wikipedia, and Tumblr REALLY have the financial resources and personnel to monitor every single submission for fear of copyright infringement? They’d be forced to go dark: just like Reddit, Wikipedia, and BoingBoing are doing on January 18th in protest of SOPA.

6. …And Still Others Will Never Be Invented.

SOPA and PIPA discourage Internet startups who don’t have the financial or legal means to fight copyright infringement claims. Just imagine Pinterest trying to survive in a post-SOPA world.

7. Finally, and Most Importantly: Your Voice Will Be Limited

This will affect what you post. It’ll affect what you publish. It’ll limit what, where, and if you can comment on the things that concern you. The risks attached with SOPA will force the sites you use everyday to limit user interaction: and in a world where revolutions are raised online, your voice has never been so important.

What the Internet Will Look Like Under SOPA

“If a news media company with fewer than 20 employees can come up with creative ways to get customers to pay a fair price, why can’t the entertainment industry?”

–Sonia Simone on Copyblogger

Need an example of what the virtual world might look like under SOPA? Here’s a visual example of what the Internet might look like on SOPA, taken from our very own comments section on the CopyPress blog:

By contrast, here’s the original (uncensored) version:

Any of these comments (especially Dave’s link to a Family Guy clip) can cause an intellectual property owner to flag the blog for copyright infringement. Instead of contacting CopyPress to request the comment to be taken down, the entire CopyPress.com site would be punished — even though the site didn’t actually link to the aforementioned video.

Photos on Twitter, Links on Facebook, comments on the Huffington Post, Tumblr submissions, and Pinterest pins are just a few of the current Internet features that would have to be shut down or strictly monitored.

What You Can Do

“The people writing these laws are not the people writing the independent web, and they are not out to protect it. We have to stand up for ourselves.”

— Jane Wells on the official WordPress News blog

  1. First, go to Stop American Censorship. You’ll find tons of ways to help stop SOPA for any commitment level.
  2. Call your Congressmen.
  3. Find out where your local politicians stand on SOPA and PIPA via SopaTrack.com.
  4. Tweet your CongressmenTweetCongress has a tool to help you find your local congressmen on Twitter.
  5. Get the word out. Tell your friends. Tweet using #SOPA, #PIPA, and #DontBreaktheInternet hashtags. Post updates on Facebook. Share this article. Share ANY SOPA/PIPA article: and encourage everyone you know to contact their local Congressmen.

There are plenty of other ways to stop SOPA (downloading apps, devoting your Twitter profile picture to the fight, etc.), but remember: the best way to stop SOPA and PIPA is to contact your Congressmen. By phone, by letter, by email, by fax, by Twitter, by Facebook, by smoke signals, flag semaphore, or Morse Code– just contact them and tell them where you stand. If you want to fight for your voice, you should be prepared to use it.

I write for the Internet. I know it well. I know its risks and I know its shortcomings. I know it’s fickle, untamed, a wild thing. I know how fast it can turn on you. The Internet is what feeds me, pays my rent, moves me, inspires me, and lets me inspire. The Internet is mine, it’s yours, it’s this scrappy, cobbled-together chaos forged by billions of hands, led by billions of voices. The Internet matters to me. And I’m not about to let Congress mess with it. Not without a fight.

I’ll leave you with this last quote from Jenny Lawson (the Bloggess):

“Internet censorship is like when you really want to download some funny porn but you can’t, because your parents are here, and all you can think of is ‘I really wish my parents would go home so I can sit around in my underwear and watch some funny porn.’ That is what SOPA would be like, except it would be like a never-ending visit from your parents for the rest of your life.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should join the fight against SOPA and PIPA.

Update on Domain Name Blocking and Internet Security: Previously, both SOPA and PIPA called for Internet service providers to block the domain name of a website with a copyright complaint. Thankfully, Representative Lamar Smith released a statement on January 13th revealing he plans to remove the DNS blocking provisions from the bill. Says Smith: “After consultation with industry groups across the country, I feel we should remove Domain Name System blocking from the Stop Online Piracy Act so that the Committee can further examine the issues surrounding this provision. We will continue to look for ways to ensure that foreign websites cannot sell and distribute illegal content to U.S. consumers.” PIPA’s sponsor has communicated similar intentions.

Nicki Porter is a working writer, fledgling foodie, and admitted alliteration addict who is very protective of her right to say ridiculous things on the Internet. Probably because she says ridiculous things on the Internet for a living. You can follow her on Twitter at @nickimporter. Or you can come hang out (and share your thoughts on SOPA and PIPA) with CopyPress on TwitterFacebook and Tumblr!