January 18, 2012, 9:31 AM — The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act are getting more negative attention, as major websites such as Wikipedia plan to protest the bills with blackouts on Wednesday. Even Google will join the action, with a link on its homepage explaining why the company opposes the legislation.
But what are SOPA and PIPA, exactly, and why are tech luminaries lambasting legislation aimed at stamping out copyright infringement? Read on for a full explanation.
SOPA and PIPA: The Basics
Media companies are always looking for new ways to fight piracy. They've tried suing individual users, getting Internet service providers to take action against subscribers, and working with the U.S. government to shut down domains based in the United States. But none of those actions can stop overseas websites such as The Pirate Bay and MegaUpload from infringing copyrights, or prevent Internet users from accessing those sites.
Enter SOPA, in the U.S. House of Representatives, and PIPA, in the U.S. Senate. Both bills are aimed at foreign websites that infringe copyrighted material. The bills are commonly associated with media piracy, but may also apply to counterfeit consumer goods and medication.
Originally, both bills provided two methods for fighting copyright infringement on foreign websites. In one method, the U.S. Department of Justice could seek court orders requiring Internet service providers to block the domain names of infringing sites. For example, Comcast could prevent its customers from accessing thepiratebay.org, although the underlying IP address would still be reachable. This ISP-blocking provision was a major concern among Internet security experts, and both SOPA and PIPA have dropped it.