You may never have heard of it, but the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, could if passed have a huge impact on the way the Internet operates.
The act has a commendable goal -- stopping the trading of illegally-copied music, movies or other copyrighted content, as well as other inappropriate content, such as advertising for counterfeit medications. It's backed by major entertainment industry companies and other key players.
But the way in which the bill proposes to achieve its goal has drawn some criticism, and even led to boycotts of companies that support SOPA.
If an aggrieved party (say, a movie studio or record company) believed that a site was providing pirated content, it could file a complaint against the site, and then the courts could issue an order prohibiting other companies -- such as credit card processors or search engines -- from working with that site.
One of the most controversial parts of the bill is that even DNS forwarding to an accused site would have to be suspended.
A domain name server, or DNS, is one of the most important parts of the Internet. Most Internet addresses, whether web pages, e-mail addresses or what have you, are actually composed of a series of numbers, like 10.20.30.40. When you type in or click on a text-based address like "t-g.com," your computer sends that text to a DNS, which then looks it up in a sort of directory and translates it into the proper numerical address. Most times, you use a DNS provided by your Internet Service Provider, although some people use a third-party DNS like OpenDNS or Google Public DNS, claiming them to be faster, more reliable or more versatile.
If SOPA is enacted, U.S.-based DNSs would have to redirect traffic away from sites accused of piracy. Some say that anyone truly interested in downloading pirated content from a forbidden site could easily change the settings in their computer to use a foreign-based DNS and get around SOPA restrictions -- and that if many users did so, it could have the unintended effect of making the Internet less secure.
Critics of SOPA say it's ham-handed, a solution too powerful for what it's intended to address, and gives the entertainment conglomerates too much power to shut down content.
Regular readers know that I enjoy the webcasts produced by Leo Laporte's TWiT network (twit.tv), including the webcast Tech News Today (TNT), hosted by Tom Merritt. TNT became the victim of a ham-fisted response by an entertainment company a few weeks ago. Universal Music Group was locked in a battle with a file storage site called Megaupload which some claim aids and abets piracy. Megaupload released a promotional video featuring several celebrities, and Universal had it taken down from YouTube. Observers originally assumed that Universal did so under the terms of the current anti-piracy laws; it turned out later that Universal has a private contract with YouTube allowing it to have material taken down.
Merritt played a brief clip of the Megaupload video during one of his TNT newscasts, in the context of reporting on the story. Legitimate news media outlets reporting on stories have some freedom to use even copyrighted content in small doses, under a legal principle called "fair use." But Universal Media Group appeared to have the episode of TNT containing the Megaupload clip taken down. Merritt appealed the decision to YouTube, and the episode was restored a few days later, but, as Merritt pointed out, the shelf life for a daily news broadcast is relatively short. By the time the newscast had been put back up on YouTube, it was virtually worthless from a daily news standpoint. (YouTube is not the primary distribution channel for TNT, however; most viewers or listeners get it directly from the twit.tv website.)
The claim of some SOPA critics is that the bill's measures have the potential to harm not only pirate sites but innocent ones -- like Merritt's -- as well. There's an appeals process for those who think they have been unfairly targeted, but critics claim that David won't necessarily be able to beat Goliath in court, or that journalists like Merritt will be hurt by the delay of having to appeal.
Meanwhile, the comic Louis C.K. has provided some evidence that, while there will always be consumers for pirated product, people are willing to support content they like. Louis C.K., star of the FX comedy series "Louie," produced his own standup comedy special and released it this month online, charging $5 per download, rather than premiering it on a TV network. The special was not copy-protected, and so it immediately turned up on the Internet as a pirated download, but even so legitimate downloads have already generated more than $1 million in gross revenue from people who were willing to pay for the special.
The SOPA act will continue to be debated when Congress re-convenes after the first of the year.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.