Understanding the SOPA Soap Opera: How Does the Stop Online Piracy Act Claim to Protect Consumers?

By now, even if you’re not quite sure what the acronym means, you’ve likely heard about SOPA.  The bill, known as the Stop Online Piracy Act or H.R. 3261, was introduced in the House of Representatives on October 26, 2011 and has been a source of controversy since. Despite the uproar, SOPA isn’t something never-before-seen; the proposed legislation is based on the PRO-IP Act, which was signed into law in October 2008. Of course, it’s not difficult to understand why SOPA is such a hot-button issue; the intellectual property legislation has drawn criticism from the likes of Google, Facebook, Wikimedia, Twitter, Mozilla, Reporters Without Borders and even the ACLU. Despite all of this, proponents of SOPA suggest it will be beneficial for consumers and society at large, with increased protection of intellectual property spurring confidence among the creative class.

Given the characterization of SOPA as a censorship bill by independent citizens as well as the Obama administration – the president said he would not support any legislation that threatened to squash innovation and promote internet censorship – it can be unclear what the upside is. However, the bill’s supporters explain that the benefits are many, and at its core are protections for consumers.

SOPA and Consumer Protection

The overarching consumer protection argument is that SOPA will benefit the economy by deterring copyright infringement from threatening the integrity of intellectual property rights.  By protecting holders of these rights, a variety of industries will be insulated from lost revenue and businesses won’t have to cut jobs. While the entertainment industry is most often cited, nearly every industry will benefit.  SOPA is also purported to aid the ailing American media industry, the collapse of which would have catastrophic consequences; the industry accounted for $443 billion in revenues in 2010.  With economic woes still plaguing the nation, increasing stability in such high-profile industries would be beneficial.

In addition to the rights-holders that SOPA aims to protect, the bill was also formulated to protect America’s citizens.  It’s no secret that the internet is awash with phishing schemes and other fraudulent behavior.  According to SOPA’s

proponents, the legislation can help the government in eliminating fraudulent schemes and reducing the number of websites that induce consumers to engage in illegal purchases or unknowingly violate copyright laws through unauthorized downloads.  Because the penalties for copyright infringement and fraudulent e-commerce transactions – interstate and foreign commerce violations give rise to federal penalties – are quite steep, consumers have a clear interest in avoiding civil and criminal action.

The SOPA legislation’s goals also include an attempt to protect consumers from being harmed by websites that sell counterfeit drugs and supplements.

Why Stop SOPA?

But such benefits are essentially meaningless if they do not outweigh the negative consequences of SOPA.  And the potential negatives are significant.  Among them are the possibility of making website maintenance more difficult even for legitimate companies, reductions in innovation, reduced internet security and perhaps even technical damage to the Domain Name System. Critics also claim that piracy websites – the primary target as far as the RIAA, MPAA, Viacom and others are concerned – will still be able to find ways to evade enforcement.

Another primary concern is the potential ‘chilling effect’ on sites such as YouTube, which harvest user-generated content. Such sites capitalize on heavy traffic to produce large revenues,

so interfering with their financial interests could have economic ripples throughout society.

While the broad disdain for SOPA may spell the bill’s doom, consumers can be sure that similar legislation will appear in the future. The face of such legislation depends on the understanding of issues at hand, the intent of the legislation and the identification of where rights cannot be compromised on the part of both industries and individuals.

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