When we last checked in with SOPA, the bill aimed at curtailing online piracy, it was catching flak from op-ed writers and newspaper editorial boards alike. The bill’s detractors, including some of the world’s largest Internet companies (Google, Twitter, and Facebook among them) were decrying that the provision would create major, damaging changes in the Internet’s underlying technology in the name of stopping copyright infringement.
Now, after two long days of debate, the House Judiciary Committee has postponed a vote on SOPA.
According to Reuters, the SOPA discussion came to an "abrupt end" when Congress was forced to "turn its attention to a floor vote on a nearly $1 trillion spending bill that would avert a government shutdown." Not that the bill is dead in the water: Lawmakers are slated to take up the SOPA measure again when Congress reconvenes, possibly as soon as Wednesday.
The Guardian today reported that Representative Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who authored the bill, had "conceded to calls for further investigation of claims that the legislation will damage the infrastructure of the internet." That concession was enough for Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit, who called the decision "a huge victory for everyone who uses the Internet – and proof that millions of people speaking out can still make a difference in a Congress usually run by corporate lobbyists."
A quick recap: SOPA would allow private companies (especially movie and record companies, whose livelihoods depend on protecting intellectual property) to create a blacklist of websites that they deem to be infringing on copyrights. With a judge’s signature, the companies can then defund these sites by barring ad providers and banks from doing business with them. SOPA doesn’t affect sites ending in .com, .org, or .net, meaning that only non-US websites would be affected by the bill.
As it’s written now, SOPA would also force some pretty major technical changes to DNS, one of the technologies that underlies the Internet. The bill’s latest version would require Internet service providers like Comcast to bar customers from visiting a blacklisted site by blocking the site’s DNS or otherwise firewalling it. SOPA would also mandate the offending site’s removal from US search engine listings. Six amendments came up on Thursday that would have softened those provisions, but the Judiciary Committee voted each of them down. (One of these amendments would have exempted universities and research institutions from the blacklisting provision; the amendment’s failure means that these groups would also have to block their users from visiting infringing sites.)
Critics of the bill, including Internet security experts and other members of the technology community, say that the changes to DNS technology proposed under SOPA would make the Web less secure. In an open letter sent to Congress on Thursday, 83 prominent Internet engineers voiced this concern, arguing that “We cannot have a free and open Internet unless its naming and routing systems sit above the political concerns and objectives of any one government or industry.” On Thursday, several lawmakers requested a delay to hear testimony from Internet engineers.
The House Judiciary Committee’s hearings will continue, but the fate of SOPA isn’t yet certain. Its Senate cousin, the Protect IP Act (PIPA), was approved in May, although the full Senate hasn’t yet taken action.
Have you been following the debate on SOPA and PIPA? What do you think about the bills’ provisions? Too harsh, or necessary to protect the legitimate interests of copyright holders? Let us know in the comments section below – we’re listening.