This week's hearings on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) have inspired heated conversations all over the Web.
Along with a similar Senate bill, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), this House legislation wants to strong-arm ISPs and other service providers into acting as copyright police for multi-billion-dollar entertainment conglomerates. The House held hearings on its bill this Wednesday. It wasn't pretty.
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The premise behind the legislation is reasonable enough: Rogue websites should not get rich by selling stuff that belongs to someone else, or cheap knockoffs of same. But the way Congress wants to enforce it is back-assward. And though the law is supposed to target only offshore operations, it could also be used as a cudgel against U.S. sites that operate abroad.
Among other details, the law would require service providers, payment processors, and the like to actively police their systems and scrub their Domain Name System servers of URLs for any sites found to be trafficking in pirated goods -- essentially creating a blacklist of "bad" websites.
This is not the same as removing the sites from the Internet. If you dialed up their IP addresses, they would still resolve; if you typed www.bigfatmusicpirate.com into your browser, you'd encounter an error message of some kind -- probably similar to the ICE banners mistakenly slapped on 84,000 websites last February by the Department of Homeland Security.
There's the big problem with this law: Judges -- many of whom know squat about technology and are still looking for the "any" key -- have the ability to effectively make sites invisible, based on complaints from content holders who are notorious for not caring about how accurate those claims really are. Hey, it's a lot easier to cut off a website for infrigement than to find out whether it's actually infringing.