How it works
Under proposed legislation, anyone found guilty of streaming copyrighted material more than 10 times within six months could face up to five years in jail. Companies such as PayPal and MasterCard would also be forced to stop sending payments to sites alleged to host pirated content.
Suppose the lawyer for Justin Bieber, a tween singer, found out that a young filmmaker used a 20 second Bieber video clip in a web movie, rather than 16 seconds which is allowed, Farr said, in explaining how the bill could affect content production.
The lawyer simply has to call the FBI or Justice Department to allege piracy and -- without a formal investigation from a judge -- the entire site which hosted the video could be taken down. "In one fell swoop, a start-up company could have its website, funds and earnings all cut-off," Farr said. "The way the law is written, there is no chance to appeal and there is an immediate injunction -- the [take down of a site] can be approved by a magistrate, which is basically a rubber stamp."
Politicians who support the legislation often do not understand basic issues of how the internet works, critics say.
"It is tragic to have policy being made by people who think it is cute to boast about their lack of knowledge of the technology they are regulating," James Boyle, a professor of law at Duke University who studies online issues, told Al Jazeera. "It is scandalous."
In their current forms, the proposed laws undermine the internet's fundamental architecture, Boyle said.
Take www.aljazeera.com, for example. Across the internet -- whether you log on in the US, China or Kenya -- the domain name (or DNS entry) takes the user to the same site. The proposed law could change this basic tenant, creating what Boyle calls a "Tower of Babel problem", making the internet a "fractured" place where "everyone has their own language and no-one can communicate".
Sites which host pirated material are often contained within the same domains as licit content. "There were concerns that entire sites would be blocked -- in other words, disappearing constitutionally protected speech," Boyle said.
Copyright as censorship
The Diebold scandal in 2003 offers an example of how companies can use intellectual property rules as a smokescreen for censorship, critics charge.
Diebold produced electronic voting machines for US elections -- kind of an important job in a democracy. The machines were not working properly. Hackers unearthed a series of 15,000 internal company emails in 2003, showing that company officials knew about the problems and were not owning up.
Two sophomores from Swarthmore College, Nelson Pavolsky and Luke Smith, published the e-mails on their university-hosted website. Diebold sent the university an ultimatum, demanding the site be taken down for copyright infringement, invoking the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. The university initially complied.
After a legal and public relations battle, the company decided it would no longer try to stop the web distribution of its memos. But the case raised troubling questions for whistleblowers and freedom of information activists. And SOPA would give companies more power for these kinds of actions, critics say.
"We should hope we don't live in a world where the first recourse of someone who wants to censor someone is to claim copyright infringement," Boyle said.
Analysts worry that SOPA, in its extreme form, was just a political manoeuver -- a way to prepare the public for slightly less severe legislation which includes many of the same tenants.
"The system eventually worked," as the White House and other leading politicians came out against the "disastrous bill", Boyle said. "But many people think the technique was designed to make the next bill look more attractive by comparison."
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