Chances are you've heard about SOPA, the House of Representatives' Stop Online Piracy Act, and maybe also its partner PIPA, the Senate's Protect IP Act.
Giants such as Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia and Twitter are fighting the proposed laws, but small businesses also could suffer potentially life-threatening damage from them.
The bills were created in hopes of cracking down on rogue websites posting content that infringes on copyrights, but critics say the bill's description of what constitutes intellectual property infringement is too vague.
Have a commenter who links to a site that uses a copyrighted image inappropriately?
"SOPA says that makes you liable to the full extent of its broad enforcement powers, [including] shutting off your domain name to censor your site, or cutting off your PayPal account," wrote Sonia Simone of Copyblogger, an online marketing and copywriting advice site. "A site can be shut down for a single infringing link even if it's a link you didn't post."
Under the legislation, critics say, you are guilty until proven innocent: A business that is accused of copyright infringement could still be shut down temporarily.
Wrote Simone: "As anyone who's ever worked in (or founded) a small company knows, the little guys tend to live on the edge. They don't necessarily have six months of payroll in the bank. They don't keep an attorney on retainer to fight a fraudulent accusation."
According to The New York Times, Google and Yahoo would be required to remove hyperlinks to the accused website in search results. ("Can you feel the SEO earth shaking beneath your feet?" said the Internet marketing blog Wordstream.) PayPal and Visa would have to stop payment transactions to the site, and Google AdWords would have to discontinue advertisements.
Wrote Wordstream: "Internet service providers would block access to your site and your domain name would be taken down with DNS blocking—you know, the thing they use for the Great Firewall of China? "
The bills also would let courts force American internet service providers to stop routing web requests to foreign websites that infringe copyrights—basically, critics say, letting the government mandate what you can see online.
An accused foreign website would have 48 hours to request an appeal of the court's decision. If it doesn't appeal, U.S. companies would have five days to obey the court order or face liability for enabling illegal activity.
“While I support their goal of reducing copyright infringement (which I don’t believe these acts would accomplish) I am shocked that our lawmakers would contemplate such measures that would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world," Google co-founder Sergey Brin wrote on Google+ in December.
The White House has opposed key elements of the pending legislation. In a blog post co-authored by chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra, the Obama administration wrote: "While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cyber security risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet."
It added: "Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small."
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