Understanding SOPA: The House debates the Stop Online Piracy Act

Taylor Hatmaker, Tecca
Technology News Blog

Today, the House Judiciary Committee continued to wrestle the Stop Online Piracy Act before the second legislative session came to an abrupt end. The hearing picked up this morning after more than 20 amendments were rejected over the course of yesterday's controversial 11-hour long markup process, during which legislators hashed out changes to the bill, which is commonly known as SOPA (H.R.3261). If passed as initially proposed, SOPA would broadly expand the U.S. Department of Justice's power to enforce copyright — and to demand that internet entities like social networks and search engines take an active role in doing so too. For now a vote is delayed until "the earliest practical day that Congress is in session," which could be weeks from now.

In November, some of the biggest companies on the web came out in full force to oppose a proposed anti-piracy bill as it wended its way through Congress. Prior to the congressional hearing on November 16, a consortium of nine companies that would be affected by the bill (eBay, Twitter, AOL, GoogleFacebook, Yahoo, Mozilla, Zynga, and LinkedIn) released an open letter publicly criticizing SOPA . The hearing only featured a single witness against the proposal: Google's policy counsel, Katherine Oyama. (Since SOPA enjoys bipartisan congressional support, the selection of a single dissenting witness for the opposition, while striking, isn't uncustomary.)

Supporters of SOPA predictably include many names in traditional media distribution, like the MPAA, the RIAA, Comcast/NBCUniversal, and Viacom. The war over the controversial bill highlights a growing rift between new forms of online digital media distribution and the old guard of the recording and broadcast industries  — and the very real implications this mounting tension has on web users.

Want to know the basics and how you can take a stand for the future of the open web? Read our SOPA FAQ below.

What is SOPA?
SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R.3261), which was introduced to the House in October by a bipartisan group of 12 supporters. SOPA combines two Senate bills: S.968 and S.978.

What would SOPA do?
The bill would set up a system for the U.S. government to enforce copyright. It would grant the U.S. Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice the power to take legal action against sites deemed to be violating copyright. SOPA would also grant the government the power to request that search engines (Google and Bing, for example), internet service providers, and social networks like Facebook block access to a site deemed to be in violation of copyright laws.

Currently, the terms of service agreements on most websites solely pertain to individual users when it comes to illegal content. SOPA would extend the burden of responsibility for copyright violation to the companies that deliver web content to users, as decided and ordered by the Department of Justice.

How would SOPA affect web users?
Beyond expanding the government's provisions for enforcing copyright laws, SOPA would also make streaming copyrighted material a felony under U.S. law, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Where can I read the full text of the bill?
To learn more about SOPA, you can find the bill's full text online at OpenCongress.org.

What action can I take?
You can easily send your Congressperson a note with your thoughts on SOPA at AmericanCensorship.org.

Where can I watch SOPA online?
The second day of the hearing is over for now, but when the markup resumes, you can watch the House Judiciary Committee action live at Keepthewebopen.com or on the House's official website (we haven't been able to get that livestream to work, but maybe you'll have more luck!).

This article originally appeared on Tecca

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