- Please remember to consult an attorney. This should not be considered legal advice.
Recently there was a massive Internet blackout and online protest aimed at stopping a pair of bills in the federal legislative houses. These bills, SOPA in the House and PIPA in the Senate, were intended to curb Internet piracy by placing heavy restrictions and penalties on online piracy of copyrighted material. Proponents of SOPA/PIPA say the bills were aimed mainly at overseas repositories of pirated materials like The Pirate Bay, a very popular torrent website. Opponents said it was ill-considered and heavy handed, as well as unnecessary. After all, opponents said, Napster was charged with copyright infringement under existing laws and The Pirate Bay could be too, if it were based in the United States. It isn’t, of course, which is why SOPA/PIPA became an issue to begin with.
You see, laws regarding copyrights differ in each country. They can range from onerous laws where quoting too much of an article can be considered theft, to countries where there is virtually no concept of intellectual property at all. Most sets of laws fall somewhere in the middle of this large spectrum of opinion and public policy.
So, punishing pirates who steal intellectual property is a good thing, right? Well, this isn’t universally agreed upon, but most people certainly say yes. However, the problem with this law is the unintended consequences that could result. Opponents claim that the vagueness and flexible interpretations of SOPA/PIPA could result in de facto censorship of the Internet, a notion which is much more controversial amongst denizens of the Web.
SOPA, PIPA, CISPA—there are just too many acronyms to be considered here, so lets take them one at a time. SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act, or HR 3261, which was introduced by Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, a Republican, on October 26th, 2011. The bill was designed to cut off Internet access to websites which traffic in copyrighted material. The bill authorizes courts to ban advertising networks from working with certain websites and to prevent companies like PayPal and AlertPay from being able to accept money from, or send money to, infringing sites. Furthermore, courts would be able to prevent search engines from linking to those sites and Internet service providers could be ordered to cut off access to those websites. Under the provisions of the law, a person streaming a live football game that is copyright protected could face up to five years in prison. The concern with this bill is that it would be used to restrict free speech and innovation and that entire websites could be shut down due to a single blog posting. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act affords websites a lot of protections against this sort of heavy-handed approach to copyright infringement policing, and opponents felt SOPA was essentially just a sneaky way of repealing the safe harbor provisions found in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
PIPA was the U.S. Senate’s corresponding bill to SOPA in the House. This means that they share a great deal of their provisions. This bill was introduced into the Senate on May 12, 2011, by Vermont’s Democratic Senator, Patrick Leahy. This was actually a re-write of a failed Senate bill, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), another bill sponsored by Senator Leahy. The Congressional Budget Office released an estimation on the implementation, enforcement, and training costs regarding PIPA and found that it would cost $47 million through 2016.
As you may know by now, SOPA and PIPA failed—there was a massive backlash against the two bills which resulted in what is perhaps the largest online protests in history. On January 18th, 2012, this protest began when English Wikipedia, Reddit, and many of the largest websites by traffic in the world participated in the so-called “blackout”, placing banners on their page promoting the protest and asking viewers to contact their representatives about the two bills. In total, over 115,000 websites participated in the protests, Google collected millions of petition signatures, and hundreds of millions of individuals saw blackout banners. Lawmakers were contacted by 14 million concerned citizens, 10 million of them voters. These protests not only drew a great deal of public attention and generated a lot of backlash against legislators who were supportive, it caused some of those legislators to step away from their support of the bill, including at least three members of the House and eight Senators, with several other legislators in both houses deciding which side they were going to take on the day of the historic protest.
This brings us to CISPA—the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. This bill was introduced to the House by Republican Michael Rogers of Michigan on November 30th, 2011, and was originally supposed to deal with copyright issues and security issues regarding cyber-terrorism. However, opponents like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union have alleged that it’s just a second chance for this Congress to pass SOPA. CISPA garnered considerably less attention than SOPA or PIPA did, passing the House easily on April 26th, 2012. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the bill if it comes to his desk, though.
Proponents of CISPA say it is just a way for businesses to share information with each other and with the United States government regarding cyber-security and online threats. For example, if Facebook’s servers were compromised, they cold contact Yahoo in order to let them know about this breach of their systems, as well as the federal government, something which they cannot now do in many circumstances. So why are opponents so concerned? Well, there are two main reasons—concerns about civil liberties and privacy is the first. The second is the provision that any company that shares private information under the auspices of this bill is not liable, legally, for any damage the exposure of that information may have caused.
So, is CISPA just SOPA 2.0? That depends on who you ask. While the two bills have concerned many of the same people for similar reasons, SOPA was concerned with copyright protection, while CISPA is concerned with cyber-security. However, there are still issues regarding liability and constitutional rights which many people are quite concerned with. Furthermore, many people feel CISPA provides a backdoor to accomplishing the same censorship of the Internet that SOPA/PIPA was attempting to accomplish. While the level of opposition has not risen anywhere near the levels SOPA/PIPA generated, there is already a petition here with hundreds of thousands of signatures.
Library of Congress – You can find legislative history and details on SOPA and PIPA.
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – EFF has analysis and commentary on SOPA, PIPA, and CISPA, focusing on digital rights and privacy implications.
Congress.gov – For official bill texts and the status of legislation related to SOPA, PIPA, and CISPA.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – Offers insight into the privacy concerns surrounding CISPA and other similar legislation.
Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) – Provides information on Internet policy, including analyses of SOPA, PIPA, and CISPA.