The House Judiciary Committee won't vote on the Stop Online Piracy Act until next month, but controversy over the bill has continued through Congress's Christmas break.
While the bill has broad, bipartisan support, it also has countless critics - many high-profile technology executives - who have gathered significant public opposition. SOPA's opponents have succeeded in injecting worst-case and unlikely scenarios into the public discourse. One op-ed at Roll Call warned that SOPA could be used to stifle political free speech and shut down entire websites "without any involvement by a court."
Google co-founder Sergey Brin has warned that SOPA "would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world." Being mentioned in the same breath as China, Iran, Libya and Tunesia certainly doesn't give SOPA a good reputation, and people seem to have taken his statement at face value.
As is the case with political fights, people are playing loose with the facts. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting an article on SOPA that warns the bill would dismantle the "safe harbor" protections of the DMCA. It's these protections, we're told, that allow sites like Facebook and YouTube to operate without the responsibility for the infringing actions of their users. But we're not told that a web site operating in Estonia of Hong Kong need not abide by the DMCA. SOPA aims to give copyright owners redress over companies operating outside U.S. jurisdiction.
Few commentaries get into SOPA's finer points to explain how "safe harbor" protections might actually be undermined. As Erik Martin, general manager of Reddit, explained to TorrentFreak, there are serious worries that SOPA's language is broad enough that a site like Reddit could possibly be impacted because its users link to a site targeted by a court order. "It doesn't matter what they say the bill is for, the language is far too vague and far too easy for various parties to use it beyond the stated goals."
Indeed, SOPA has been widely criticized for being too vague. Vague language can lead to unintended consequences. And it's the unlikely scenarios that arise from unintended consequences that opponents argue will be sure to happen.
But the worst-case scenario doesn't always occur after a bill has passed. As Terry Hart has pointed out at his Copyhype blog, opponents to everything from the DMCA - passed into law in 1998 - to the No Electronic Theft Act have made chilling, sky-is-falling declarations. "Ten years later, many of those same critics couldn't praise the DMCA enough," he writes. "Wired magazine calls it 'the law that saved the web.'"
Overall, SOPA's opponents have been so successful that technology companies now risk consumer backlash for supporting SOPA. One recent example is GoDaddy, which reversed its position on SOPA after the company reportedly suffered from the exodus of tens of thousands of customers. 1&1 Internet, a GoDaddy competitor, saw the opportunity. The company hasn't exactly taken a hard stand against SOPA, but in a Dec. 29 email its customers the company voiced concern over the bill and offered instructions on how a person could drop a SOPA-supporting Internet provider.