Misuse of copyrighted content is a fact of life on the Internet. Everyday, YouTube users upload homemade videos with copyrighted songs and peers share files that could have originated from a torrent site like Pirate Bay. Now, imagine that the US government granted itself sweeping legal authority to shut down alleged pirate sites and intervene when web sites host any kind of content that infringes a copyright. Imagine web users facing felony charges for streaming copyrighted content without permission.
Two bills aimed at fighting Internet piracy are currently making their way through Congress and would give the Justice Department such authority. The bill's proponents say the legislation could save the US economy billions of dollars and protect consumers from fraudulent products like fake prescription medicine.
A growing movement of opponents, including members of Congress from both parties, claim the bill is an Internet job killer that would open a Pandora's box of legal actions that could cripple online innovation and entrepreneurship while putting anyone connected to pirated content under threat of legal action.
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate have reopened the fierce debate over the government's role in regulating the Internet, and both bills could be up for a vote within months.
Both bills would allow the Justice Department to take down sites deemed to be "dedicated to infringing activities" and both the department and copyright owners would be allowed to sue alleged infringers. The bills also allow the Justice Department to demand that search engines, payment processors like PayPal, social media sites and service providers remove links and block access to targeted sites.
In addition, SOPA would make the unauthorized web streaming of copyrighted content a felony carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison, a measure that prompted the American Censorship coalition to claim "singing a pop song on Facebook could be a felony."
Broad language in both bills targets web pirates, but because many pirating sites operate outside the US and copyrighted content is mixed in with user generated media, a wide range of third-party search engines and sites would be forced into the legal process.
Under SOPA, private companies could ask the Justice Department to force search engines and providers to remove links to infringing sites and demand social networking sites police and censor users.
The authors of the bills claim that third-party sites could challenge court orders and would not have to police pirating beyond what is technically feasible, but opponents say big media and entertainment companies would be granted new legal tools to tie up smaller competitors in expensive legal battles and squash up-and-coming social media sites like Soundcloud and Tumblr.
"SOPA and [Protect IP] would place a major burden on all sorts of sites that accept user generated content, but it's heaviest for innovators and smaller organizations that don't have large legal teams," said Parker Higgins, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Under SOPA or [Protect IP], these sites may never be able to get off the ground."
Censoring user-generated media could drive consumers toward more conventional sources, and it turns out the entertainment industry is a big supporter of the legislation. Comcast, Viacom, NBC Universal and industry groups like the Recording Industry Association of America have all joined the US Chamber in Commerce in supporting SOPA. Together, these groups have contributed more than $3.9 million to top members of Congress.
Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vermont) introduced the Protect IP Act, and the television, movie and music industries are his second-biggest campaign donor group, donating a total of $371,806 since 2007, according to OpenSecrets.org. The entertainment industry is top SOPA sponsor Lamar Smith's (R-Texas) biggest donor with a total of $59,300 in contributions since 2011.
But some lawmakers are wary of regulating the Internet in tough economic times, and bipartisan opposition to both bills is building in Congress, with leaders like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) coming out against the legislation in recent weeks. (Pelosi took a side via Twitter.)
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) recently told members of the House Judiciary Committee that their legislation is a threat to the Internet as Americans know it.
"In other words, the wrong approach to combating infringement could fundamentally change the Internet as we know it, moving us towards a world where transactions are less secure, ideas are less accessible and starting a website wouldn't be an option for anyone who couldn't afford a lawyer," Wyden said.
SOPA is expected to receive markups on December 15 in the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate could vote on Protect IP by the end of the year or in early 2012.