How SOPA Works

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.