A quick introduction to the Stop Online Piracy Act -- a.k.a. SOPA

Last week, the GOP primaries and the dramatic negotiations in Congress over the payroll tax cut extension seemed to dominate the MSM news cycle — but, on Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites, the first stirrings of concern about a House bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act — and its Senate equivalent, the Protect IP Act — also began to crop up.

We haven’t yet discussed the bill in detail here at Hot Air, but, as the House Judiciary Committee could potentially vote this out of committee Monday or Tuesday of this week, I wanted to offer a quick introduction for those of you who are unfamiliar — an introduction to be fleshed out in future posts, as I research the issue a bit more myself.

Introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and co-sponsored by representatives from both parties (the bill has a total of 31 co-sponsors!), the Stop Online Piracy Act purports to stop “foreign online criminals from stealing and selling America’s intellectual property and keeping the profits for themselves.”

According to Rep. Smith’s website, “IP theft costs the U.S. economy more than $100 billion annually and results in the loss of thousands of American jobs. The Stop Online Piracy Act specifically targets foreign websites primarily dedicated to illegal activity or foreign websites that market themselves as such. The bill ensures that profits from America’s innovations go to American innovators.”

But opponents of the bill suggest it is unlikely to do what it is designed to do — and highly likely to result in troubling unintended consequences. Put simply, the bill would enable the U.S. government to block Internet content for very specious reasons. Sites that “enable or facilitate” copyright infringement could be shut down just for that enabling or facilitating function. In other words, a site like YouTube could be shut down just because one of its users posted content that infringes copyright laws. As critics have pointed out, that’s akin to punishing a car company because a car user crashed his vehicle into another person’s vehicle.

In other words, to critics of the bill, SOPA is not about piracy — it’s about censorship. After all, at its core, piracy is a service problem — and censoring websites like YouTube isn’t likely to stop piraters, who are notoriously adept at finding a way to peddle copyrighted material no matter what the restrictions. As this Cynical Brit who has introduced hundreds of thousands of viewers to the dangers of SOPA put it, the way to beat piraters is to provide better service than they do — to make it a better consumer experience to legally view or use copyrighted material than to illegally view or use copyrighted material.

While I’m still teasing out the details, my initial response to this bill is one of deep concern. It sounds highly suspect to me. Rep. Darrell Issa has spearheaded the Twitter effort to #stopsopa, and that, too, reinforces my doubts about the bill. Please feel free to share additional information about SOPA and Protect IP in the comments section. I’ll be sorting through your responses tonight in my ongoing effort to educate myself about Internet freedom in advance of the vote on SOPA.

Update I: Here’s a YouTube playlist of the greatest hits from last week’s markup of SOPA, via Darrell Issa’s team.

Update II: This post originally made it sound like the entire Congress might vote on SOPA before the end of the year, when, in fact, the potential votes in question were votes within the House Judiciary Committee.