If you’re reading this, chances are that you’ve at least heard of SOPA. Detractors have compared the bill to censorship policies in countries such as China, Iran and Syria; the grassroots effort to stop it have been massive. Administrators from some of the largest sites in the world have publicly opposed the measure for many reasons, one of which is that inadvertent violations could sound the death knell for a website. Here are ten of the reasons why violating SOPA could be so easy that a site would be unaware until it was too late. Fortunately, the SOPA bill is delayed/shelved in Congress right now but it’s still important to remember the impact it could have some day.
- Vague Language – Though House supporters have claimed that SOPA is designed to protect the intellectual property of Americans from foreign profiteers that illegally distribute content in exchange for advertising and membership revenue, the vague wording of the bill makes it difficult to understand exactly what constitutes a violation and certainly doesn’t offer immunity to inadvertently-offending American sites.
- User-Submitted Content – If a site allows any sort of user-submitted content to be posted as part of their business model, they could very easily find themselves in violation of the Stop Online Piracy Act. Under the current language of the proposed law, the owner of the site that hosts the content, the user that posts a link to the content and the website that allows the user to submit that link could all potentially be charged with violating the bill.
- The “Friend-of-a-Friend” Effect – Do you remember when you were a kid, and the friend of a friend did something that got you all in trouble? Maybe you weren’t directly involved, and maybe you didn’t even like that person very much, but your mom still said that you were “guilty by association.” Under SOPA, the same principal applies: even if a link to legitimate and legal content housed on another site is shared, the site that posts the link could be punished if the hosting site is found to house illegal content as well.
- The Comments Section – One of the quickest ways to lose faith in humanity and the education system is to take a look at the comments section of a YouTube video or comedy article; comments are almost universally inflammatory and poorly spelled, but that’s still legal. Should SOPA pass and one trolling user posts copyrighted material in the comments section, the site would be in violation and could face blacklisting, blocking of revenue and DNS blocking.
- Banner Ads – Aside from being an irritating part of web-surfing, banner ads are arguably the lifeblood of the internet. Those blinking, shouting, IQ-test-offering bits of space pay for the hosting and maintenance of your favorite sites. Depending on how those ads are distributed, the site admins usually have little to no control over their content. Foreign companies can (and do) use protected images in these sites, which could lead to SOPA complaints for the site that hosts the ad.
- Fair Use – Copying material that is copyrighted for “transformative” purposes, such as creating a parody, is called “fair use,” and has a precedent of use as a legal defense against infringement claims. SOPA would effectively end the practice of fair use, as investigation of claims isn’t required in the current wording of the bill. Hosting currently-allowed fair use images or content could lead to violation charges.
- Housing a Discussion Forum – Many websites dedicated to a niche interest or subject also house a forum for users to discussed this shared interest. SOPA would make it almost impossible for sites to allow forums, due to the violating content that many users have in their signatures and avatars. Even if those users never shared a single illegal download link, the site could still be in violation from those avatars and signature panels.
- VPN Violations – Because the SOPA wording allows culpability to be extended to anyone aiding someone who posts copyrighted material, a web-based company that uses a virtual private network could find themselves facing allegations in the event that another network user shares illegal content.
- Search Engine Results – Part of SOPA’s line of defense against piracy is to require the blocking of offending sites from search engine results. Should a site that hosts such content slip through the cracks of a search engine site, that search engine could be held liable for violations.
- Open Source Software – For every expensive piece of software available, there’s a perfectly legal, user-built open source version. Created by users for users, the open source format is one of the great accomplishments made possible by worldwide networking. Companies like Mozilla, whose Firefox browser allows open source plug-ins, have already come under fire for permitting the creation and use of plug-ins that would allow access to sites wrongfully blocked in the event that SOPA passes.
Though there is no question that piracy is a problem that affects the entertainment industry to the tune of millions, SOPA is not the solution. While supporters pay lip-service to the idea of protecting American interests, the bill could potentially crush the internet as a viable source of start-ups and entrepreneurial spirit. The inherent riskiness of any web-based venture in a post-SOPA America would discourage investors from putting money into these ventures.