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Ask Slashdot: What Can You Do About SOPA and PIPA? 1002

Wednesday is here, and with it sites around the internet are going under temporary blackout to protest two pieces of legislation currently making their way through the U.S. Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect-IP Act (PIPA). Wikipedia, reddit, the Free Software Foundation, Google, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, imgur, Mozilla, and many others have all made major changes to their sites or shut down altogether in protest. These sites, as well as technology experts (PDF) around the world and everyone here at Slashdot, think SOPA and PIPA pose unacceptable risks to freedom of speech and the uncensored nature of the internet. The purpose of the protests is to educate people — to let them know this legislation will damage websites you use and enjoy every day, despite being unrelated to the stated purpose of both bills. So, we ask you: what can you do to stop SOPA and PIPA? You may have heard the House has shelved SOPA, and that President Obama has pledged not to pass it as-is, but the MPAA and SOPA-sponsor Lamar Smith (R-TX) are trying to brush off the protests as a stunt, and Smith has announced markup for the bill will resume in February. Meanwhile, PIPA is still present in the Senate, and it remains a threat. Read on for more about why these bills are bad news, and how to contact your representative to let them know it.

Note: This will be the last story we post today until 6pm EST in protest of SOPA.
Why is it bad?

The Stop Online Piracy Act is H.R.3261, and the Protect-IP Act is S.968.

The intent of both pieces of legislation is to combat online piracy, giving the Attorney General and the Department of Justice power to block domain name services and demand that links be stripped from sites not involved in piracy. The problem is that the legislation, as written, is vague and overly-broad. For one thing, it classifies internet sites as "foreign" or "domestic" based entirely on their domain name. A site hosted abroad like could be classified as "domestic" because the .org TLD is registered through a U.S. authority. By defining it as "domestic," Wikileaks would then fall under the jurisdiction of U.S. laws. Other provisions are worded even more poorly: in Section 103, SOPA lays out the definition for a "foreign infringing site" as one where "the owner or operator of such Internet site is committing or facilitating the commission of criminal violations punishable under [provisions relating to counterfeiting and copyright infringement]." The problematic word is facilitating, as it opens the door to condemning sites that simply link to other sites.

The most obvious implication of this is that search engines would suddenly be responsible for monitoring and policing everything they index. Google indexed its trillionth concurrent URL in 2008. Can you imagine how many people it would take to double check all of them for infringing content? But the job wouldn't end at simply looking at them — Google would have to continually monitor them. Google would also have to somehow keep track of the billions of new sites that spring up daily, many of which would be trying to avoid close scrutiny. Of course, it's an impossible task, so there would need to be automated solutions. Automation being imperfect, it would leave us with false positives. Or perhaps sites would need to be "approved" to be listed. Either way, we'd then be dealing with censorship on a massive scale, and the infringing sites themselves would continue to pop up.

But the problems don't end there; in fact, SOPA defines "Internet search engine" as a service that "searches, crawls, categorizes, or indexes information or Web sites available elsewhere on the Internet" and links to them. That's pretty much what we do here at Slashdot. It's also something the fine folks at Wikipedia and reddit do on a regular basis. The strength of all three sites is that they're heavily dependent on user-generated content. Every day at Slashdot, readers deposit hundreds and hundreds of links into our submissions bin. Thousands of comments are made daily. We have a system to surface the good content, but the chaff still exists. If we suddenly had a mandate to retroactively filter out all the links to potentially copyright-infringing sites in our database, we wouldn't have many options. We're talking about reviewing hundreds of thousands of submissions, and every comment on 117,000+ stories. And we're far from the biggest site around — imagine social networks needing to police their content, and all the privacy issues that would raise.

Small sites and new sites would be hurt, too. A website isn't a single, discrete entity that exists on its own. A new company starting up a site would have to worry about its webhost, registrar, content provider, ISP, etc. The legislation would also raise significant financial obstacles. New companies need investments, and that would be much less likely (PDF) if the company could be held liable for content uploaded by users. On top of that, if the site was unable to live up to the vague standards set by the government and the entertainment industry, they could be on the receiving end of a lawsuit, which would be expensive to fight even if they won (and such laws would never, ever be abused). It's hard to conceptualize the internet without noting its unrivaled growth, and SOPA/PIPA would surely stifle it.

This legislation hits near and dear to the hearts of many Slashdotters; if SOPA/PIPA pass, IT staff for companies small and large are going to have their hands full making sure they aren't opening themselves to legal action or government intervention. Mailing lists, used commonly and extensively among open source software projects, would be endangered. Code repositories would need be scoured for infringing content; the bill allows for the strangling of revenue sources if its anti-infringement rules aren't being met. VPN and proxy services become only questionably legal. The very nature of the open source community — as the EFF puts it, "decentralized, voluntary, international" — is not compatible with the burdens placed on internet sites by SOPA and PIPA.

What can we do?

So, what can we do about it? There are two big things: contact your representative, and spread the word. Slashdot readers, on the whole, are more technically-minded than the average internet user, so you're all in a position to share your wisdom with the less internet-savvy people in your life, and get them to contact their representative, too. Here's some useful information for doing so:

Propublica has a list of all SOPA/PIPA supporters and opponents.
Here is the Senate contact list and the House contact list.
You can also use the EFF's form-letter, the Stop American Censorship form-letter, or sign Google's petition.
If you don't live in the U.S., you can petition the State Department. (And yes, you have a dog in this fight.)
SOPAStrike has a list of companies participating in the protest, and this crowd-sourced Google Doc tracks companies that support the legislation. Tell those companies what you think.

Further reading: Wikipedia has left their SOPA and PIPA pages up. The EFF has a series of articles explaining in more depth what is wrong with the bills. Here are some protest letters written to Congress from human rights groups, law professors, and internet companies.

Go forth and educate.
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Ask Slashdot: What Can You Do About SOPA and PIPA?

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