The Stop Online Piracy Act and You: A Primer

I'm a world-class nerd. But that doesn't mean I understand the nuts and bolts of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), an internet censorship bill on which the House Judiciary Commitee held hearings today. (You can watch the hearings live here.)

Worryingly, I'm not alone: As the Washington Post reports, members of the Judiciary Committee that met to amend SOPA tended towards identifying themselves as ignorant of the inner workings of the internet. "If I had a dime for every time someone in the hearing used the phrase 'I'm not a nerd' or 'I'm no tech expert, but they tell me . . .,'" writes the Post's Alexandra Petri, "I'd have a large number of dimes and still feel intensely worried about the future of the uncensored Internet."

In an effort to educate myself, I've tracked down a bunch of articles, comics, and infographics about the bill. Considering that the ramifications of this bill sound dire at best, I thought it would be a good idea to assemble some of my findings here.

Ars Technica has an article that breaks the entire situation down. From the intro:

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. The credit card processors and the advertising networks would be required to take quick action against the named website; only the filing of a "counter notification" by the website could get service restored.

It's the world envisioned by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) in today's introduction of the Stop Online Piracy Act in the US House of Representatives. This isn't some off-the-wall piece of legislation with no chance of passing, either; it's the House equivalent to the Senate's PROTECT IP Act, which would officially bring Internet censorship to the US as a matter of law.

Calling its plan a "market-based system to protect US customers and prevent US funding of sites dedicated to theft of US property," the new bill gives broad powers to private actors. Any holder of intellectual property rights could simply send a letter to ad network operators like Google and to payment processors like MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal, demanding these companies cut off access to any site the IP holder names as an infringer.

The scheme is much like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's (DMCA) "takedown notices," in which a copyright holder can demand some piece of content be removed from sites like YouTube with a letter. The content will be removed unless the person who posted the content objects; at that point, the copyright holder can decide if it wants to take the person to court over the issue.

Here, though, the stakes are higher. Rather than requesting the takedown of certain hosted material, intellectual property owners can go directly for the jugular: marketing and revenue for the entire site. So long as the intellectual property holders include some "specific facts" supporting their infringement claim, ad networks and payment processors will have five days to cut off contact with the website in question.

The scheme is largely targeted at foreign websites which do not recognize US law, and which therefore will often refuse to comply with takedown requests. But the potential for abuse-even inadvertent abuse-here is astonishing, given the terrifically outsized stick with which content owners can now beat on suspected infringers.

But how does this affect you as a gamer? The gaming news site Gameranx has posted an article with the following breakdown of game-centric things that can be affected by the bill:

As a gamer, here's what you stand to lose if SOPA passes:

* Mods
* "Let's Play" videos
* Video replays
* Video reviews and commentary
* Unofficial game guides
* The taking, hosting, and sharing of screenshots, artistic or otherwise
* Image forums (Reddit, 4chan)

That seems fairly extreme to me—from my read on things, if a company supports mods, then mods won't be taken away. The power is in the hands of the content holder. But all the same, it sounds like a company or IP holder would theoretically be allowed to go after all of those things.

The website Get Your Censor On takes a more humorous but no less chilling approach to the topic, putting together a series of comics that depict a funny but also freaky future. The full thing is worth checking out, but here's a snippet:

The Stop Online Piracy Act and You: A PrimerS

The comic (and several other sites) link to the page Americancensorship.org, which gives a lot of easy ways to get in touch with congresspeople while also offering plenty more info, including this infographic, which presents a similarly anti-SOPA/Protect IP Act breakdown. (The full infographic is included at the bottom of this post.)

There are many more resources available, should you want to know more about SOPA and its ramifications. You can contact your congressperson through Americancensorship.org and there is also a petition going on Reddit. Our sister site Gizmodo has also shared an easy way to tell Congress you don't support the bill.

Get informed and get involved. You can at least do better than Iowa Representitive Steve King, who, while seated at the Judiciary Committee hearing today, tweeted this wildly ironic statement:

The Stop Online Piracy Act and You: A PrimerS

Some members of Congress may not care about this bill, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't.

The Stop Online Piracy Act and You: A PrimerS