Understanding SOPA: The House debates the Stop Online Piracy Act

This week, some of the biggest companies on the web came out in full force to oppose a proposed anti-piracy bill wending its way through Congress. The bill is known as the Stop Online Piracy Act or SOPA, and it expands 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.

Prior to a congressional hearing this morning, a consortium of nine companies that would be affected by the bill (eBay, Twitter, AOL, Google, Facebook, 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.

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 very quickly send your Congressperson a note with your thoughts on SOPA at AmericanCensorship.org.

This article originally appeared on Tecca

More from Tecca:

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting