But doesn't the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) grant immunity to website owners for content posted by users? Yes, it does. The DMCA offers website owners a Safe Harbor for content posted on their site by users. So, YouTube for instance cannot be held responsible if one of its users posts copyright infringing material on its site. DMCA allows content owners to ask the YouTubes of the world to take down infringing material. But they cannot sue the site itself unless it refuses.
So U.S. websites are protected from SOPA then? Not really. Critics contend that SOPA will let content owners do an end-run around DMCA. With SOPA, content owners need not bother with takedown notices. They can target an entire website if they choose to.
That's just FUD, isn't it. Supporters of the bill insist that SOPA is targeted mainly at the worst of the worst offshore rogue websites. The bill describes such sites as those that are "primarily designed or operated" for the purpose of offering infringing and counterfeit goods and services and little else. That definition would seem to exclude sites that may occasionally carry an infringing item or two, but are not dedicated to copyright theft and counterfeiting.
What recourse do targeted websites have? The law will offer targeted websites between five and seven days to explain why they should not be subject to the prescribed action. Relief for targeted websites will be available in accordance with Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. But the operators of such foreign sites will first need to agree to be subject to U.S. laws.
What other protections do accused sites have? The bill would require content owners to provide ISPs, payment providers, and others with detailed written explanations, supported by proof, of why they are seeking action against the sites.
Who's behind SOPA? SOPA was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Lamar Smith (R-Va.). It is co-sponsored by John Conyers (D-Mich.), Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and several other lawmakers. The bill enjoys support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and predictable quarters such as the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America. It also has garnered wide support from a majority of state attorneys-general, law enforcement officials, hundreds of trade unions and industry groups, and even a few companies such as Pfizer.
So who, then, is really opposed to it? Lots of people, including free speech and rights advocacy groups, industry associations, academicians, lawyers and some of the largest web companies, including Google, Yahoo, Facebook and others.
What's this Protect IP Act I keep hearing of? That's the somewhat tamer Senate version of SOPA.
So what happens to SOPA next? The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on it on Wednesday, and it's expected to go to legislative "mark-up" by the end of the year. Exactly when it comes to a vote is unclear.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.
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Correction: This story as originally posted incorrectly identified the Stop Online Piracy Act. The article has been amended.