Controversial legislation aims to help U.S. authorities clamp down on rogue websites, but critics say it amounts to Internet censorship.
U.S. Rep Lamar Smith (R-Texas), along with 12 co-sponsors, last month introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act, (H.R. 3261). The bill is meant to prevent the theft of intellectual property that's online and in particular seeks to clamp down on foreign websites that steal content from American producers. Critics, however, say the bill amounts to Internet censorship. Here's a look at five key provisions.
1. Many of SOPA's provisions are aimed at foreign websites that stream or otherwise make available copyrighted content, such as movies and music, to U.S. audiences. SOPA allows the U.S. attorney general to seek a court order against such sites to block them, using technical means such as DNS filtering.
2. Online service providers, like ISPs, search engines, ad networks, and payment providers, are required to withhold services to websites that are deemed by a court to be infringing copyrights held by U.S. content producers. Further, ISPs must block U.S. Web users' access to such sites.
3. The bill grants civil claims immunity to Web services providers for any actions they take in order to comply with the terms of the act. In other words, a website that's been blocked by an ISP after being found to be infringing can't turn around and sue the ISP for denial of service or breach of contract.
4. SOPA takes specific aim at purveyors of online pharmaceuticals that sell drugs to individuals without a prescription. It authorizes ISPs and other Web services providers to withhold services to such sites, many of which operate from India and Canada.
5. SOPA requires the secretary of state and secretary of commerce to appoint intellectual property attaches to all embassies in foreign countries. Part of the attaches' remit would be to work with local authorities to establish programs to cut down on intellectual property theft.
SOPA isn't without controversy. Backers say its measures are necessary to stop rampant online piracy. "The Internet harbors a category of bad faith actors whose very business models consist of infringing copyrighted American books, software, movies, and music with impunity," said Maria Pallange, national register of copyrights, during House testimony Wednesday.
And Pfizer chief security officer John Clark said passage of the bill is essential to protect U.S. consumers from knockoff drugs that are potentially harmful. "For Pfizer, pharmaceutical counterfeiting is first and foremost an issue of patient health and safety," said Clark.
Critics, however, contend that some SOPA provisions go too far and would chill free speech on the Internet and stifle innovation. "Any government intervention in the online ecosystem that is the Internet can and will have a ripple effect on more than just its bad actors," said U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), during testimony.
Companies could abuse such a law "to protect outdated business models by quashing new innovations in their infancy and discouraging less than complimentary speech," said Wyden.
SOPA currently sits in the House Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet. It has yet to be introduced to the floor for a vote.