Thursday, March 8, 2012
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What is SOPA? And what happened?

Thursday, March 08, 2012
Much has been made regarding the recent flurry of media coverage over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). This article briefly summarizes the key aspects of the United States bill itself, implications for Canadians, and what lies ahead.

WHAT IS SOPA? AND WHAT HAPPENED?

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is aimed to increase the scope of current law enforcement mechanisms in the United States to combat copyright infringement and counterfeit goods. Proponents of the bill championed the initiative stating that new tools will provide effective protection for intellectual property rights, while conversely critics argued the legislation is overbroad, extending to suppress fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and causing unnecessary censorship of the internet.

Within the bill several key provisions were seen as contentious with one example being section 102 which states that service providers shall technically prevent all its subscribers from accessing foreign infringing websites. This type of provision is aimed at curtailing large scale piracy havens such as “ThePirateBay.org” whose operations fall outside United States jurisdiction. It is, however, the technical measures imposed by law for service providers to block access to foreign websites for all its subscribers that leave many questioning how far the law may extend. The technical blocking of full websites by their Domain Name System (DNS) is argued by some to change the technical nature of internet operations and in effect censor certain websites from subscribers.

Examples like the one mentioned above were used as a lightning rod to mobilize content users and content distributors. The movement gained an enormous amount of traction; even the White House took a position stating that although they are in favour of increasing protection surrounding copyrighted content, they will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression.

Furthermore, industry heavyweights such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, and Twitter entrenched their position of opposing the bill. On January 18th many commonly accessed websites including Wikipedia.org “blacked-out” their websites in protest to bring awareness to the issue.

Finally on January 20th Lamar S. Smith, the congressman who introduced the bill, pulled the legislation off the table, citing that a revisiting of the issue was required in order to properly address the underlying problems.

CANADIAN IMPLICATIONS OF SOPA

As Canadians, one would likely not be worried about foreign legislation as the relative impact would be minimal. SOPA, however could have had far reaching implications beyond the borders of the United States. The two main focal points of discussion are the extra-jurisdictional reach afforded, and heavily used content services being altered.

To the first point, the bill affords “in rem” jurisdiction with respect to any website that does not fall within the jurisdiction of the United States. In effect, any foreign website would be treated as a domestic one for purposes of enforcing tougher copyright enforcement provisions. Furthermore, if the aggrieved party wishes to challenge allegations, the jurisdiction is designated to United States courts.

While the first point is more of a legal argument for most, the second point targets the masses. Websites such as YouTube, Google, and Facebook (which are used heavily by Canadians), could have their basic operations reconfigured due to SOPA. Namely, a “chilling effect” of available services and content could ensue, whereby users would be reluctant to post potentially legitimate content and website moderators would take down potentially legitimate content in fear of legal repercussions.

Therefore, while not purely exclusive to Canadians, the global effect with “in rem” jurisdiction and potential revised functionality of major content providers could have large implications for the general population.

WHAT LIES AHEAD

While SOPA is currently dead, the underlying issues are not. Another bill is likely to succeed SOPA implementing a new strategy to combat copyright infringement and counterfeit goods.

The consensus amongst all is that greater protection measures should be employed to defend content creators. The disagreement lies in the implementation. A telling quote is that of respected Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak who is quoted in the Vancouver Sun on January 24th as follows:

“I have friends in the music industry and in the movie industry who are being hurt by piracy. They need to be protected. I am an inventor with patents and I understand the need for protection. I do have strong feelings that what SOPA is trying to do is proper and needed. I just don’t trust the people who would enforce this bill. It gives them far too much power. It looks like the electronic version of the Patriot Act, which I am also against. Our own civil liberties and constitutional rights would be trampled again.”

This sentiment seems to be echoed by the majority of the parties involved in that the ideal of superior intellectual property protection should not be achieved by restricting internet neutrality and fundamental rights.

Remarks made by SOPA’s chief sponsor Lamar S. Smith cited the need for a new approach and further consultations with industry leaders. Many would see this as a positive note, as the chief sponsor has communicated that a clear and novel analysis of the issues is essential to the process going forward.

By Kamaldeep Sembi

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