The goal of the Stop Online Piracy Act is relatively straightforward: to crack down on "internet pirates" or people illegally downloading copyrighted albums and DVDs. Stealing is wrong, and thieves should be punished--simple, right?
Opponents of the bill say it's too vague and murky and could potentially restrict freedom of speech and fundamentally change the Internet experience as we know it. It's akin to "dealing with a lion that has escaped from the zoo by blasting some kittens with a flamethrower," according to popular humor site The Oatmeal, which has blacked out its content in protest of the bill. (Tens of thousands of web sites have followed suit, including giants such as Wikipedia and Reddit.)
But what would happen if SOPA actually passes? Would Big Brother track our every click? Could you be arrested and hauled off to jail for posting a copyrighted photo? You might not do hard time in the slammer, but your personal web pages--Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Wordpress blogs, for instance--could be shut down. Without warning.
Much to the chagrin of students everywhere, sites such as Wikipedia -with millions of users posting, editing, and adding content that may or may not be copyrighted - probably wouldn't stand a chance under SOPA. The cost of monitoring such sites would be overwhelming, creating daunting burdens for internet companies with limited resources.
"What we're talking about is book burning here," says David Johnson, assistant professor at American University's School of Communication. "For one sentence in the book you can burn the book under what SOPA talks about. You can take the entire site down. They're shutting down the freedom of the Internet."
Search engines such as Google could also change, filtering results that contain copyrighted material. Internet service providers could even block entire sites at their discretion.
Even comment sections on web sites could be at risk. With SOPA, a blogger or site owner isn't just responsible for her own content, according to a recent article, she'd have to answer for her commenters' posts, too. Faced with having to police their web sites, site administrators would likely just forget to the whole thing and disable comments, effectively stunting online dialogue.
But with opposition to the bill building both within Washington and across the country, SOPA faces a tough battle in Congress. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) came out in support of SOPA protesters Wednesday, saying the efforts "turned the tide against a backroom lobbying effort by interest that aren't used to being told 'no.'" The White House has also expressed concerns about the bill.
SOPA's Senate counterpart--the Protect IP Act (PIPA)--is scheduled for a vote next Wednesday. Debate on SOPA will resume in February.