Finding Value In SOPA

Jefferson Monument. Photo by MikeSheridan99

There is a lot of discussions, arguing, lobbying, and political wrangling going on around the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its sister legislation Protect IP Act (PIPA) right now. It has been portrayed as the battle between Silicon Valley and Hollywood, old media verses new media, Washington verses California, and on and on and on. But what is SOPA really and what is the potential value in the discussion around SOPA?

What is SOPA?

SOPA is essentially and anti-digital piracy bill that was introduced in to the House of Representatives by Lamar Smith, a Republican Member from Texas.  It has a sister act (as is common) on the Senate side in PIPA. The core of both bills is an attempt by intellectual property owners such as recording artists, movie studios, writers, and anyone else who produces content that is intellectual property to strengthen copyright protections, reduce infringement, and restrict access to sites that host what is considered pirated content.

So What Is The Issue?

The battle against digital piracy is nothing new and protecting content is kind of like mom in apple pie in the tech space – everybody loves the idea – but the question is how do you do it. We already have the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which lays out enforcement measures against digital infringement and piracy, but this act has had limited success against oversees sites where a lot of the piracy takes place.

That is what makes SOPA and PIPA different – instead of going after the perpetrator, SOPA would target the ecosystem around the pirate sites which sounds like a good idea until you think through the potential secondary consequences. SOPA as it sits now would undermine the current effort at promoting end-to-end encryption of domain names, would cause innocent Web sites to potentially get swept up and shut down as part of a broad effort, and it potentially includes a requirement for internet providers to monitor customer traffic potentially down to the packet level.There is other language in SOPA and PIPA that is questionable, such as how enforcement would be handled in almost a vigilante approach, the anti-avoiding SOPA language which borders on draconian, and the potential internet censorship that is assured. It is these secondary consequences that have the large internet firms like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, AOL, and others concerned about SOPA.

Moving Forward

So we all agree that there are a number of issues with the SOPA bill itself. But there is also value in the discussions on the issue underlying SOPA – content and IP protection. So how to move forward?

  1. Understand that good intentions don’t equal good legislation. We all agree that we want to protect digital content and stop digital piracy, but that as it sits now SOPA is not a good solution to do that.
  2. Consider viable alternatives. we need to consider alternatives viable alternatives such as the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade (OPEN) Act. The OPEN Act may not be the best solution, but it is a step in the right direction.
  3. Invest in innovation. We need to invest in developing new and better technologies to protect against digital piracy. Innovation is a strength that can and should be employed to stop or at least reduce digital piracy. And yes, similar to any “war” it is going to be going on for a while. So we need to constantly be innovating newer and better protections. Any protection we come up with will get cracked eventually, but we need to accept that as part of the ongoing battle.

The Bottom Line. The value in SOPA is not in the legislation, but in exposing the issue of content protection as it is tied to our use of the internet. SOPA isn’t going to stop digital piracy anymore then Prohibition stopped drinking. Instead of trying to legislate away the problem, let’s use our energies to develop newer technologies to try to stay one step ahead of the pirate.


  1. While I appreciate the mental exercise, it’s not true “we all agree we want to protect digital content.” That’s a dialogue society should have, now that SOPA is dying in its current incarnation. Because thus far the country has been avoiding it entirely, in favor of the corrupting influence of insane amounts of corporate money. Once a meaningful discussion around what are valid options to our old way of thinking and/or build some consensus on appropriate boundaries, then the nation can enact legislation to govern this new world we’re still not yet full appreciating the gravity of.