Is the Equation 'SOPA = the Death of the Internet' Real or Overblown?

Carl Weinschenk

Big fights generally are accompanied by big hyperbole. Boxing fans remember what took place before the Joe Frazier/Muhammad Ali bout in 1971 and what would occur if a fight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather ever actually happened.

People's tendency to easily get excited makes it a bit surprising that a bill moving through the House of Representatives entitled the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) isn't generating more high-decibel attention from the general public. It is, however, raising such an uproar among its opponents. They say that SOPA has the potential to do one simple thing: end the Internet as we know it.

Today is a big day for SOPA. The Washington Post reports that the bill will be marked up by the House Judiciary Committee. The piece says that Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) will offer a manager's amendment, which is designed to address some of the concerns.

It is unlikely that anything Smith introduces will squelch the opposition. As the name implies, SOPA - which, according to The Huffington Post, has a companion bill in the Senate with the vanilla name "Protect IP" - on the surface is aimed at fighting something virtually everybody wants to fight: online criminality. It is how that fight is waged that is raising the ire of many. Says the Huffington Post story:

SOPA would imbue the federal government with broad powers to shut down whole web domains on the basis that it believes them to be associated with piracy - without a trial or even a traditional hearing. It would provide Hollywood with powerful new legal tools to stifle transactions with websites whose existence worries the movie industry.

It is that description that concerns - actually, from their vehemence, seems to terrify - its detractors. In a column at CIO, Bill Snyder quotes Google's Katherine Oyama (whom the Huffington Post story says was raked over the coals by members of the House Judiciary Committee):

"Countless Websites of all kinds - commercial, social, personal - could be shuttered or put out of business based on allegations that may or may not be valid. The bill sweeps in innocent websites that have violated no law, and imposes harsh and arbitrary sanctions without due process," said Oyama, Google's copyright policy counsel.

A post by Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas at the end of November is a good primer on the topic. It features a video, links to editorials at The New York Times and Los Angeles Times and a bit of the common hyperbole on the topic - that may or may not be justified:

While the entertainment industry already has outsized tools to fight piracy, they don't want to deal with the hassle of having to send takedown notices to individual infringing sites. It's hard work, going after YouTubes of dancing babies and stuff! And, of course, they don't have jurisdiction over many foreign-based sites. So, if they can't stomp out all piracy, plan B is to destroy the internet.

The protests of folks who make their livings from the Internet will continue, especially if SOPA is not changed to their liking. In this era of protest, protecting the Internet from what is perceived to be a dire threat - whether real or grossly exaggerated - won't run under the radar for long.

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