A Sourcer’s Guide to Understanding SOPA and PIPA

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Jan 18, 2012
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Today, many Internet websites are participating in a “blackout” protest against two bills that have been making headlines recently due to their controversial nature. SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (PROTECT IP [Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property] Act) discussions have taken online communities by storm over the last several weeks — but do you really understand either of them, or how they may affect sourcing?

Let’s start with PIPA, because it was introduced first and it’s really the only bill that’s still an immediate issue since President Obama shelved SOPA on Monday (why people are still protesting it today confuses me, but that’s another story…).


What it is

PIPA was introduced in May 2011 by by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and 11 bipartisan co-sponsors.The bill, which is essentially a re-write of the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) introduced by Leahy in 2010, aims to give the U.S. government and copyright holders tools to curb access to “rogue websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods,” especially those registered outside the U.S. Infringement, in this case, is defined as the distribution of illegal copies, counterfeit goods, or anti-digital rights management technology.

What it would do

The PROTECT IP Act says that an “information location tool shall take technically feasible and reasonable measures, as expeditiously as possible, to remove or disable access to the Internet site associated with the domain name set forth in the order.” In addition, it must delete all hyperlinks to the offending “Internet site.”

Roughly translated, this means that search engines and other sites that link to content would become responsible for removing, disabling, and redirecting traffic away from sites violating copyright and trademark laws. Websites could still be reached by their IP addresses, but links or searches using a domain name would not reach it.


What it is

SOPA was introduced in October 2011 by House Judiciary Committee Chair Representative Lamar S. Smith (R-TX) and 12 bipartisan co-sponsors. This bill, which builds on the PRO-IP Act of 2008 and the corresponding PIPA Senate bill, would expand the ability of U.S. law enforcement and copyright holders to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods.

What it would do

The main goal of this bill is to protect the intellectual property of content creators as well as indirectly to prevent the sale of mis-branded or counterfeit drugs online. The bill would allow the U.S. Department of Justice and copyright holders to seek legal action against websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. This could include barring online advertising networks and payment facilitators from doing business with the allegedly infringing website, barring search engines from linking to such sites, and requiring Internet service providers to block access to such sites. The bill would also make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content a crime punishable by prison time. The bill also gives immunity to Internet services that voluntarily take action against websites dedicated to infringement, while making liable for damages any copyright holder who knowingly misrepresents that a website is dedicated to infringement.

Why sourcers should understand these bills

Everyone should understand these bills — but there are some things that would certainly affect Internet sourcing. There are good intentions behind them (protecting intellectual property and discouraging copyright infringement), but they do come with some consequences.


The greatest impact would be felt in communities driven by users. Essentially, these bills would give the government authority to shut sites down if any of the content (including that posted by community participants) were deemed to infringe on copyright or trademark law. Site that could potentially be targeted include resources I’m sure you enjoy using for sourcing efforts, like Ning sites, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook, and even linking and search results via Twitter and search engines could be affected. It gives new meaning to the phrase, “One bad apple spoils the barrel.”

Even though some say that it’s not meant to affect the majority of Internet users, like Daniel Castro of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) who said, “Nobody’s talking about taking down someone’s personal website because they happen to use a copyrighted photo,” it is still a slippery slope and baby steps down the road to a censorship scenario like what the Chinese experience with The Great Firewall. Like the old saying goes, you give an inch and they take a mile.


Possibly the most interesting side effect of both of these bills doesn’t really get discussed by the general population. The structure of the Domain Name System (DNS) calls for all domain name servers around the world to have identical lists. With these two bills, servers inside the U.S. would have records different from their global counterparts, making URLs less universal. This in turn could force companies to find ways to work around these restrictions, either by developing solutions like Mozilla’s MAFIAAFire Redirector which redirects users to an alternative domain when a site’s primary domain has been seized or by offshoring servers to countries with fewer restrictions.

As sourcers, we completely understand this concept of innovative workarounds, as we go about our business peeling back URLs and finding ways to gather information from websites using rather creative methods. Some network experts believe that hackers would offer workarounds to private users to allow access to government-seized sites, but that these workarounds might also jeopardize security by redirecting unsuspecting users to scam websites. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, as necessity is the mother of invention and censorship in other parts of the world has led to the development of some creative new ways to keep people connected. But the idea of censorship having to be in place for this to occur just isn’t appealing to the average American.

Final Thoughts

Don’t fall victim to an old sales trick

My colleague Lance Haun posted on Google+ yesterday,

Why am I cynical about SOPA/PIPA passing in some stealthy, crappy form later down the line, regardless of what the protest tomorrow demonstrates? Because this version of the NDAA was passed, signed and everyone just shrugged their shoulders. And we’ll still choose the same a-holes that did it at a 80-90% rate of re-election.

This is a common practice in any negotiation situation: ask for a ridiculous price, and when the buyer balks the price is only lowered to where the buyer feels he is getting a sweet deal. Notice that both bills are revisions of bills that had not been passed, with only slight adjustments to ‘refresh’ them. Their roots go all the way back to 2008, in fact. SOPA was shelved on Monday but PIPA is still up for a vote on January 24. And just because SOPA is shelved doesn’t mean it wouldn’t become an issue again in the future.

Educate yourself

As sourcers, either of these bills could have an adverse effect on the Internet’s accessibility and thus it is important to educate yourself on what they entail. Whether you support or protest either SOPA or PIPA, you must do your due diligence and research the details in order to form your own opinion. That being said, both of these bills have some serious flaws in them and, in my personal opinion, should both be scrapped. But don’t just take my word for it — read, ask questions, and come to your own conclusions.

If either are passed, SOPA and PIPA will certainly impact Internet sourcing. Whether it’s mostly good or mostly bad remains to be seen. What are your thoughts?

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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