You may have noticed all the blacked out sites on the Internet on the 18th of January, but possibly aren’t aware of why they were doing this. The answer is SOPA – the poorly named “Stop Online Piracy Act”
In itself, that sounds fine, right? We want to cut piracy so this must be good. Well, no.
We already have laws in many countries which already allow us to take down websites hosting pirated content, but in many countries the process is one of “Innocent until proven guilty” – this means evidence needs to be provided, legal processes have to take place, and a court can rule that a website must be shutdown. The DMCA lets the US do that.
What SOPA does is change the balance to “Guilty until proven innocent” – which means that a website can be taken down just because of an allegation of copyright infringement.
For StackExchange, for example, occasionally people post plagiarised content. We rely on the community flagging this content, and moderators then remove it as fast as possible. (Look at Joel’s answer to this question to see the full process under DMCA and how this protects StackExchange legally). If SOPA was in force, StackExchange would be in danger of being removed from the Internet for any violation as it would be seen as guilty.
What is also very worrying is the US’s history of going after individuals in other countries citing US law, when those individuals have no connection to the US. See Richard O’Dwyer’s case – while what he did may have been used for nefarious purposes, all he really provided was links to other websites, and yet the US have forced the UK to extradite him. With a significant portion of the Internet under some US control, it wouldn’t be stretching the truth to assume this US bill would affect many other countries.
Another outcome if SOPA came into force would be an acceleration of businesses away from networks owned or controlled by the US, which may directly lead to greater piracy threats.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation – a strong force for free speech on the Internet has this handy guide to SOPA.
So why didn’t StackExchange join the blackout? – see this answer: the content is owned by the community, so the entire community would have had to agree on the blackout.