What is SOPA, What are the latest updates? (Part 1)

Let’s pretend you don’t know what’s going on with this whole Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) mess and it’s Senate counterpart PROTECT IP (PIPA).

In a nutshell the bill’s purpose is to criminalize “unauthorized streaming of copyrighted material,” theft of intellectual property (think: music, movies, TV shows) and to stop foreign websites from trafficking counterfeit products, prescription drugs, etc. Opponents, however say the bill violates the First Amendment (stifling free speech and therefore innovation), is too vague in its definitions of violation and would block many major sites for even a single complaint (think: YouTube for a wedding video playing any unauthorized Olivia Newton-John.)

Last week saw two major victories for SOPA opposition with the bill itself being shelved in the House until “consensus” is found in the “flawed legislation.” And even if the bill does pass and PIPA passes through the Senate, the White House has already said it doesn’t support it because the bill disrupts the open standards of the Internet. [See “How a Bill Becomes a Law” via Schoolhouse Rock.]

This Wednesday, Jan. 18 is SOPA hearing day, where tech entrepreneurs and innovators get to take the stand against the bill. It’ll also be Blackout Day (8 A.M. – 8 P.M. EST) for sites like Reddit, Wikipedia, some WordPress sites, Boing Boing, MoveOn, the entire Cheezburger meme network and many gaming sites, among others.

But for all intents and purposes, I’m going to assume you want to know what proponents and opposers say about this bill, so you can be more informed, and who the key players are.

What SOPA supporters and sponsors say:

The bill will stop “rogue” and/or foreign Web sites from selling counterfeit goods (designer impostor purses or prescription drugs, for example, being sold to Americans) and go after sites that offer illegal copies of music, movies and TV shows (without the permission of the U.S. rights holders). 

The bill’s sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), says: it “will make it more difficult for those who engage in criminal behavior to reach directly into the U.S. market to inflict harm on American consumers.” The bill also seeks to “protect American intellectual property from counterfeiting and piracy.” Notably, the bill has been changed and amended a few times, due to further discovery of its overall impact.

Tim Rothman, Co-CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment says, “It’s really robbery–it’s theft–and that theft is being combined with consumer fraud. Consumers are purchasing these goods, they’re sending their credit card and information to these anonymous offshore companies, and they’re receiving defective goods.”

Supporters: Comcast/NBCUniversal, The Association of American Publishers, the Center for Individual Freedom, Americans for Tax Reform , ESPN, News Corporation, Penguin Group, Scholastic, Sony Music Entertainment, Time Warner, Viacom, Warner Music Group, the Screen Actors Guild, Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, and a slew of others.

What the SOPA opposition says:

Opponents say that it violates the First Amendment, is Internet censorship, will cripple the Internet, stifle innovation and suppress free speech.

An analysis from technology magazine eWeek stated: “The language of SOPA is so broad, the rules so unconnected to the reality of Internet technology and the penalties so disconnected from the alleged crimes that this bill could effectively kill e-commerce or even normal Internet use.” 

Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence H. Tribe, said that SOPA would “undermine the openness and free exchange of information at the heart of the Internet.” Much of the critiques have also been circling around the bill being too far reaching and its lack of transparency, with opponents stating “The bill’s wording is vague enough that a single complaint about even a major website could be enough to cause the site to be blocked” and that “Much of what will happen under SOPA will occur out of the public eye and without the possibility of holding anyone accountable.” 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has warned that Etsy, Flickr and Vimeo all seem likely to shut down if the bill becomes law, although Rep. Smith’s team says otherwise. 

Opponents: Facebook, Google, Reddit, Wikipedia, Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, AOL, craigslist, American Express, Discover, eBay, LinkedIn, Twitter, Yahoo!, Boing Boing, Zynga Game Network, Vimeo, WordPress, Scribd, Etsy, Creative Commons, Kickstarter, Rackspace, foursquare, ACLU, American Association of Law Libraries, American Center for Law and Justice, MoveOn.org, (notably, GoDaddy after a boycott when they were for SOPA, but they still supported SOPA lawmakers) and other leaders in law, tech and enterprise

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