Rep. Smith

A bill slithering through Congress gives companies new power to shut down Internet sites that offend them, all in the name of curtailing "piracy" of copyrighted material.  

But critics like CNET's Larry Downes call it "Hollywood's latest effort to turn back time."

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would require Internet intermediaries -- meaning your ISP, Facebook and sites like this one -- to censor any posting that supposedly violated intellectual property laws.

Critics like Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) say SOPA “would mean the end of the Internet as we know it."  Canadian pop star Justiin Bieber went even further in a radio interview last week, suggesting that any member of Congress who votes for the bill "needs to be locked up — put away in cuffs."

'Rogue' sites

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and others, would authorize the Justice Department to seek injunctions against "rogue" websites dedicated to providing access to pirated goods or content. It would also allow the government and rights holders to demand that third parties, including payment processors and online ad networks, cut ties with such sites.

Ironically, Smith, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, claims to be a foe of "unnecessary regulations," and frequently touts his committee's passage of a bill that would supposedly "reform the federal regulatory process and reduce unnecessary burdens on job creators."

Smith and his follow SOPA sponsors say the measure is necessary to stop Americans from sharing music, movies and other copyrighted material with each other. But technology groups say the bill would be a "nightmare" for Web and social media firms.

"[T]his is not a bill that targets 'rogue foreign sites.' Rather, it allows movie studios, foreign luxury goods manufacturers, patents and copyright trolls, and any holder of an intellectual property right to target lawful U.S. websites and technology companies," the Consumer Electronics Association and the Computer and Communications Industry Association said in a letter to members of Congress.

Stifle innovation

The Electronic Freedom Frontier (EFF) says the measure would stifle innovation and creativity and destroy jobs, while making the Internet  duller and drabber while making it easy for just about anyone with a grievance to shut down entire sites. 

"This bill could also have a huge impact on the work of human rights advocates and whistleblowers who depend on online tools to protect their anonymity and speak out against injustice," said EFF's Travor Timm. "Platforms created to provide anonymity software to human rights activists across the world, as well as next generation WikiLeaks-style whistleblower sites, could be major casualties of this bill — all in the name of increasing Hollywood’s bottom line."

Under SOPA, private companies would be able to force payment processors to shut down payments to websites by merely claiming the site “engages in, enables or facilitates” infringement.  This broad provision could target websites behind important Internet projects such as Tor, the anonymity network that has been vital for protecting activists from government surveillance in Tunisia and Egypt, Timm said.

"Corporations concerned about users illegally downloading music could use SOPA to force Visa and Mastercard to cut off donations to — despite Tor’s aim to facilitate human rights activism, not piracy," he said.

Whistleblower sites could also find themselves in trouble if they post any documents related to corporate corruption or law breaking, if those documents contain trade secrets or are copyrightable.

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