By now, you’ve probably noticed sites such as Google and Wikipedia "blacked out" in opposition to a couple bills in congress called SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (PROTECT Intellectual Property Act).
There are quite a few good write-ups explaining exactly what SOPA is and what it’s implications are. I suggest starting with the SOPA Wikipedia page, or even reading the SOPA bill itself (pdf). The problem is that all of these articles, and the bill, require a technical understanding of how the internet works; it’s easy for many of us doing the writing to take such a technical understanding and background for granted, which I think creates a disservice to the vast majority who merely use the internet.
I hope to give you, the “non-techie”, an understanding of the proposed bill so that you can understand the gravity of the situation, by using some everyday analogies. Will this explanation be 100% technically accurate? No, they are analogies after all. But I hope that’s better than giving an accurate explanation that you don’t understand.
Starting a movie theater
Let’s say you are watching a movie one night with your significant other, and you have an idea. You think, “I’m going to start a theater with premium seating. And cell phones aren’t allowed in the theater. And a candybar won’t cost $5!” And so you start this theater. Starting a theater is expensive, so you don’t have much money for marketing or advertising, you’re going to rely on providing an excellent experience and word of mouth.
Only a couple of the other theaters in town start getting nervous. They don’t want you taking their market. So they complain to the government that you’re playing movies you didn’t get the rights to play. No worries, when the authorities ask, you’ll just show them your licensing agreements.
All of a sudden, patrons stop walking in the door. You walk outside and notice someone has taken your sign down! There’s a notice on the post that says you’ll be legally prosecuted if you put it back up. You search google your theater to see if something comes up, and you realize you no longer show up in search results. You finally get an email with more information, and you’ll be allowed to present your case and prove your innocence (which will be easy since you have all the proper licensing agreements in place).
Your court date is in 30 days. It doesn’t matter. You’ll be out of business by then.
Think this is crazy? This is basically what happened to MegaUpload when they posted a music video containing artists like Will.I.Am endorsing the website (and which they were requested to post by the artists themselves)! Universal Music Group (UMG) filed a takedown notice ordering MegaUpload to immediately remove the video until they could get a court hearing.
Opening a bar
Beaten but not broken, you decide to start a new company. To avoid the mess that happened last time, you decide to clear completely clear of the media industry this time around. You decide to open a bar. Without TVs. It’ll just be an awesome social atmosphere with an excellent selection.
Everything goes well this time around, until one night customers inexplicably stop walking in the door. Remembering last time, you walk out front and your sign has been taken down again! “What happened this time?! I don’t even have a TV in the bar!”
You finally get the email and it says your bar has facilitated the distribution of unauthorized goods via the bulletin board, and you will not be allowed to serve customers while under investigation. You walk over to the board and see a small yellow flier offering counterfeit watches for sale.
You know how this story ends. Again.
Think this sounds crazy? This happened to a Canadian blogger running a climate-change blog, called ClimateAudit.org, which was hosted on servers are in the US, when a random visitor posted in the comments that they had a file containing over 5,000 emails from respected climate scientists in which they expressed doubts about the robustness of their climatology findings. The government ordered WordPress to freeze the blogger’s account for 90 days while they investigated.
In the real world
In both of the related real-world accounts, neither MegaUpload nor ClimateAudit.org actually went out of business as a result of the events, since they were one-time isolated events for each that were eventually worked out. However, this would not necessarily be the case given the new powers granted to the government by SOPA and PIPA.
They would allow the government to order Google, Facebook, and others to blacklist your website from being returned in search results or shared, and order internet service providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T to prevent people on their networks from accessing your domain, without the need to access your servers or invade your business. Essentially, they can take down your sign before you’re actually found guilty.
Imagine a world in which large corporations and conglomerates have the ability to hire departments of attorneys who can file frivolous notices with the government and have you go out of business simply as a side effect of the actual due process involved!
Again, this is all highly simplified and analogized, so I encourage you to read more technically accurate articles if you are so inclined.