SOPA and PIPA: Or, Why Web Sites Have Black-out “Censorship” Bars Today

January 18, 2012

You may have noticed big Web sites like Google or Wikipedia (which Jonah Goldberg thinks is hilarious) or WordPress wearing dramatic black-out bars today and wondered what was going on.

They’re protesting, and trying to “raise awareness” of, SOPA and PIPA, two bills currently being considered in the House and Senate, respectively.  Unfortunately, the protesting Web sites’ in-house explanations of what all this means tend to be short—something like Congress is trying to censor the Internet, help us stop them!—which leaves you almost no better informed than before.  (Wikipedia is a notable exception, making some effort to offer a real explanation and linking to other articles on the subject.)  WordPress invites its users to let their own blogs help compound the lack of information (in an instance of what Snopes.com and others might call “slacktivism”):

There are two options: a “Stop Censorship” ribbon and a full blackout. . . . That’s it! Easy-peasy activism right at your fingertips.

(Caveat: I admit that I haven’t watched WordPress’s embedded video on the subject.)

So I thought I would link to some articles I’ve read to try to understand it, in case you wanted to learn more, too.  (I’m still not sure I understand it well enough even to know whether I would be for or against any one of these bills; at times like this, I’m glad I’m not a legislator, who had better know enough to have an opinion.)  Note that these pieces focus on different aspects of the controversy, and that they may not even all be talking about the same versions of the bills, which are still under negotiation in the House and Senate.  In order from least to most technical:

“Is It a Good Idea to Wash Foreign Pirates’ Mouths Out with SOPA?”, Nick Schulz, National Review Online’s the Corner:

There’s a lot of cynicism about democracy today, much of it deserved. But the OPEN Act compromise indicates that despite the noisy clang of politics that’s so off-putting to some, our democracy still works pretty well sometimes.

“SOPA vs. PIPA: Anti-piracy bills, uproar explained”, Andrew Couts, Digital Trends:

Finally, critics argue that SOPA and PIPA could severely stifle free speech online.

“Online Piracy and Internet Security: Congress Asks the Right Question but Offers the Wrong Answers”, Paul Rosenzweig, Heritage Foundation:

. . . [SOPA and PIPA] violate the fundamental principle of universality that makes the Internet function as a global communications system.

Older pieces:

“Don’t Break the Internet”, three law professors as joint authors, Stanford Law Review:

Although the bills differ in certain respects, they share an underlying approach and an enforcement philosophy that pose grave constitutional problems and that could have potentially disastrous consequences for the stability and security of the Internet’s addressing system, for the principle of interconnectivity that has helped drive the Internet’s extraordinary growth, and for free expression.

“Stopping the Stop Online Piracy Act”, David Post, the Volokh Conspiracy, even a month and a half ago, already saw the public outcry over PIPA and SOPA as unusually great, perhaps even unique.  Post characterized the part of the law that compels private businesses to help enforce the law as (or as likely to lead to) “a kind of thuggery”.  (Note that this part of the law bears some resemblance to part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which has been law since 1998.  Supporters of PIPA or SOPA say that means we shouldn’t be alarmed about this, either; critics say that the DMCA has been abused and this will be, too.)

“SOPA-Rope-a-dope”, Stewart Baker, the Volokh Conspiracy:

. . . browser code can’t tell the Attorney General from a hijacker, so it will end up treating them both the same.

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