Why is PROTECT-IP so bad?

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As I recently posted, SOPA and PIPA, the bills that represent the next step in the media industries’ war on piracy (or, to be fair, what they call piracy), have been getting increasing amounts of attention. And it’s bringing results: just yesterday, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was pulled from consideration in the House of Representatives.

While this is a big win for the internet, it’s only part of the battle, because the PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA), a nearly identical bill, is still scheduled for a vote in the Senate on January 24, a week from today. So it’s still not too late to contact your senators and ask them to oppose the bill! Wikipedia has also joined the cause, pledging to black out its site tomorrow to raise awareness.

The Problem with PIPA

A friend of mine recently made a post about SOPA on the FreshySites blog which I think shows how some of the information about what these bills do has been distorted as it’s traveled around the web. With the blackouts of Wikipedia, Reddit, and other sites poised to draw a lot of public attention to the bills, I thought this would be an opportune time to clarify exactly why PIPA is so bad.

Contrary to what some people are saying, PIPA does not actually change the definition of copyright infringement. It doesn’t make anything illegal that wasn’t illegal before (except for certain companies, but more on that later). What it does do is drastically increase the penalties you face if you are infringing copyright. Currently, under the DMCA, if someone asserts that copyrighted material is available on your site, you can take the material off the site. As long as you do this promptly upon receiving the proper sort of request, you’re not responsible for the copyright infringement. If the person who originally posted it doesn’t believe that the copyright violation is really a violation at all, they can file a counter-notice to say so; then it goes to court, and the copyright holder has to prove that the copyright violation is real.

Under PIPA, that whole procedure changes. If someone asserts that copyrighted material is available on your site, according to subsections 3(d) and 4(d) of PIPA, they can get a court order requiring the following

  • Payment services, like PayPal and credit card companies, are forbidden from doing business with you.
  • Advertising agencies are forbidden from placing ads on your site.

Additionally, if your site is “foreign” (you’re using a web host or DNS registrar in another country):

  • Your domain name gets removed from American DNS resolvers.
  • American search engines are no longer allowed to list your site.

Even though the restrictions only apply to companies that operate in the US, that still cuts you off from Google, Bing, Yahoo, PayPal, Visa, MasterCard, and most banks, not to mention your whole site is inaccessible from anywhere in America — all based on the accusation that you were hosting copyright material. Even if it wasn’t under your control (say, one of your site’s users uploaded it), you still suffer the consequences.

The other thing to complain about is that in section 5, PIPA encourages websites, ISPs, DNS resolvers, search engines, etc. to proactively blacklist sites that they suspect might be in violation of the act. So, for example, Google can remove your website from their search listings, or PayPal can arbitrarily close your account, or so on, and as long as they claim a reasonable belief (whatever that means) that your site was infringing copyrights, you have no recourse against them. To some extent, this is already possible, since most of these sites’ terms of service include a provision that they may terminate your account for any or no reason. But those provisions don’t have the legal force of the US Justice Department behind them. Right now, Google isn’t required to remove a site from their search index just because the government says the site is violating copyright. PIPA would change that. Hopefully, you can see how this opens up a huge potential for abuse.