How SOPA Works


The Stop Online Piracy Act is a controversial proposal. What's the story behind it?
The Stop Online Piracy Act is a controversial proposal. What's the story behind it?
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

On Jan. 20, 2012, U.S. Representative Lamar Smith withdrew the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) from consideration on the House floor. The proposed legislation drew fire from numerous critics while massive organizations like the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) defended it. Representative Smith has said that the U.S. government still needs to address the issue of foreign piracy sites but that it’s clear more thought must be put into the matter [source: Reuters]. SOPA might not be dead and gone but it’s been shelved for now. So what was all the fuss about?

Let's get this out of the way right at the start: Stealing is wrong. It's unethical and usually illegal to take something that doesn't belong to you without permission or some form of compensation. It's easy to illustrate this point with physical objects -- if you steal apples from a store, that store has fewer apples to sell to other customers. But things get a bit tricky when it comes to digital property.

In the digital realm, it's possible to steal something and then duplicate it without depriving the original owner of the stolen item. If you get your virtual hands on the next scheduled Hollywood blockbuster and put it up on a site for others to access, you've managed to steal intellectual property even though no physical object has changed hands. The movie studio is still able to sell tickets, DVDs or other means to access the content.

To complicate matters, the Internet is a global resource. Using a browser, you can visit sites hosted on computers all over the world. Some of those sites might host pirated copies of media. How can a company in one country stop the activity of a person or organization in another country?

Piracy -- and more specifically the threat of foreign sites hosting pirated material -- is the primary focus of the SOPA legislation. Representative Lamar Smith from Texas introduced SOPA, also known as H.R. 3261, to the United States House of Representatives on Oct. 26, 2011. According to the language in the act, its purpose is to "promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes."

When you dig into the language of the act, you'll find that the goal is to target sites that exist on computers in countries outside the United States. Because these sites -- and the people who run them -- are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law, the act aims to hinder or shut down pirate sites in an indirect way. The proposed rules set out by the act are controversial -- several companies and Internet experts have objected to the material in the act and some go so far as to say it could break the Internet.

So what exactly is in SOPA that caused such a fuss?

The SOPA Opera

Although there are multiple sections in the Stop Online Piracy Act, the bulk of the language is about how to keep potential customers in the United States from accessing Web sites that offer pirated or counterfeit goods.

The act targets "foreign infringers." These are sites hosted in other countries. The act aims at sites that exist primarily to distribute pirated or counterfeit goods, for profit or otherwise. The main focus is on intellectual property. The sites must be "United States directed," meaning that it's clear that Americans are at least partly the intended audience.

Since there's no easy way to prosecute people or organizations in a foreign country, the act instead puts pressure on companies and services within the United States. Specifically, the act singles out Internet service providers, search engines, payment network providers and Internet advertising services. If the act becomes law, these entities will have to comply with a strict set of rules if the attorney general serves them a court order. And they'll have to act on those rules within five days of receiving the order.

Those rules are designed to cut off the foreign infringing site. The act requires ISPs to block access to the domain name for the infringing site. That means if you were in the United States and tried to visit a blocked site you'd either receive an error message or you'd be redirected to another page. On the back end, the ISPs would have to ensure that the domain names wouldn't resolve to the IP address for the infringing site.

The attorney general could also command search engines to remove all direct hyperlinks to an infringing site. Services like Google would be required to scour all links to the site within five days of receiving the order.

Payment network providers like PayPal and Internet advertising services would be required to cut off funds to infringing sites after receiving a court order. The hope is that by cutting off the financial support to the site, the illegal activity will stop. In addition, advertising services wouldn't be allowed to serve up ads on the infringing site nor could they produce any advertisements for the site itself.

Other items in the language of SOPA target sites that stream copyrighted works. These are sites that let you watch or listen to content on demand without first obtaining permission from the owner of the intellectual property. There are also sections that target sites that offer up counterfeit goods in general and pharmaceuticals in particular.

Cutting off financial support to a site is a big deal and there's a certain set of steps intellectual property owners will have to follow to get it done. We'll take a closer look at the process in the next section.

The SOPA Approach

Vinton Cerf, Google SVP and one of the fathers of the Internet, wrote a letter expressing his concerns about SOPA and why it shouldn't be signed into law.
Vinton Cerf, Google SVP and one of the fathers of the Internet, wrote a letter expressing his concerns about SOPA and why it shouldn't be signed into law.
Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

Nestled in the legal lingo of SOPA are two main ways for intellectual property owners to pursue action against pirates. The first involves getting the attorney general involved. The attorney general must seek a court order against ISPs, search engines, payment network services and advertising services. Once served with this court order, these companies will have no more than five days to comply. But there's also a market-based approach that doesn't involve the attorney general.

Let's say that you're the head of a movie studio. Congratulations on making it to the big time! But something is nagging at you -- you've learned there's a Web site that is offering up copies of your studio's latest hit before it's even debuted on the big screen! Worse yet, this site is hosted on a server in eastern Europe, so you can't even use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to target it!

That's when you turn to the options available to you under SOPA. You need to get a court order and have the attorney general step in to shake things up. First, you'll need to write a document and send it to the payment network provider or Internet advertising service. The document will have to include:

  • Identification of the infringing site, whether it's the entire site or a specific subdomain of a site
  • Evidence that the primary purpose for the site (or subdomain) is to distribute material that's under copyright illegally
  • Evidence that the site is directed at the United States
  • Evidence that the site is actively engaged in distributing your intellectual property without permission
  • Evidence that such distribution will cause "immediate and irreparable injury, loss or damage" if not stopped
  • Evidence showing that the payment network provider or Internet advertising service is doing business with the infringing site
  • A statement that says all information you've provided is accurate
  • A means of contacting the intellectual property rights holder
  • Your physical or electronic signature (or the signature of someone representing the owner of the intellectual property)

Once the payment network provider or Internet advertising service receives your letter, the company will have five days to shut off all support to the identified site.

Next, we'll take a look at who's in favor of SOPA and who wishes it would just go away.

SOPA Supporters and Those Opposed

It should come as no surprise that two of the most outspoken supporters of SOPA are the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). These two enormous organizations represent two powerful and lucrative industries. They have a vested interest in stamping out piracy.

Another important supporter of SOPA is the United States Chamber of Commerce. Although the organization sounds like an official public department, it's not part of the government. Instead, it's a lobbying group that represents the interests of businesses and trade associations. The Chamber of Commerce is well funded and highly influential in the political arena.

The pharmaceutical industry is also behind SOPA. The act includes language that specifically targets sites that offer counterfeit drugs or "inherently dangerous goods or services." The act doesn't designate who determines whether or not goods or services are inherently dangerous.

One company that drew a lot of attention for its support of SOPA was Go Daddy, a Web hosting site. A post from Go Daddy caught the attention of bloggers and Twitter users in late December 2011. Within hours, "boycott Go Daddy" became a trending topic. The company later withdrew public support of the act, though there remained allegations that the company privately remained on the pro-SOPA side.

On the other end of the spectrum are companies like Google, Facebook, eBay and PayPal. These companies, many of which could be directly targeted under SOPA, have objected to the legislation. In addition to this gaggle of Internet companies are numerous tech experts who say that SOPA will cause more harm than good and that the legislation won't even stop piracy. Even Vinton Cerf, known as one of the fathers of the Internet, wrote a letter to Lamar Smith expressing his concerns about the proposed legislation.

What are the arguments against SOPA and could it really break the Internet?

The Slippery SOPA Slope

Critics level many arguments against SOPA. The act's language indicates that there's no court hearing or means for a site to defend itself -- there's a lack of due process. Almost all the actions under SOPA target sites that link to or otherwise support the identified criminal site. But the illegal content doesn't belong to the ISPs, search engines, payment network services or advertising agencies.

Imagine that you run an enormous search engine like Google -- you might receive thousands of court orders commanding you to remove all links to various sites. How could you take the time to verify that all of those sites actually violate intellectual property rights? Since you don't own the content -- you only link to it -- you would have to take extra time out of running your service to verify someone else's service is legitimate. It's possible that you'd just opt to follow the court order and avoid the trouble. That could lead to censorship.

One site that could get hit by SOPA is WikiLeaks. The whistleblower site hosts documents that detail both government and corporate secrets. While there may be many companies that would prefer to see WikiLeaks go away, the site's servers aren't in the United States and so are beyond U.S. jurisdiction. SOPA might enable companies to cut off access and support to WikiLeaks indirectly.

Then there's the concern for security. Over the past few years, several agencies dedicated to improving the Internet have been working on a security protocol called Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC). The purpose of DNSSEC is to make Internet traffic more secure. The protocol provides origin authentication of DNS data and data integrity. It supports encryption of domain names. But if SOPA requires ISPs to block or remove domain names from their databases, DNSSEC is broken.

Perhaps the most damaging criticism of SOPA is that it wouldn't stop pirates. In December, while House Representatives debated the merits of the legislation, the Internet saw the first counter-SOPA extension for Firefox hit the Web. Called DeSOPA, the extension circumvents blocked domains by checking with foreign DNS servers to resolve the address. Since foreign servers aren't under the jurisdiction of the United States, they retain domains to sites.

Even without extensions, you could still visit a blocked Web site if you knew the correct IP address. These numeric addresses aren't easy to remember and they can change frequently, which is why clever Internet gurus came up with the domain name system. The domain names resolve to the proper IP addresses, meaning you don't have to remember those numbers. But if the domain names are blocked, the numbers may be the best way to get to some sites. If SOPA becomes law, expect to see sites dedicated to maintaining lists of IP addresses for blocked domains.

Debate on SOPA stretched through December and into 2012 with many members of Congress suggesting changes and amendments to the act. Public outcry led to the withdrawal of the bill, at least temporarily, in January 2012. Whether the United States will pass SOPA or a law resembling it remains to be seen. To learn more about how the Internet works, concerns about Internet censorship and the legal system of the United States, take a look at the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

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