A SOPA/PIPA Blackout Explainer

A message Tuesday on Wikipedia giving notice of its self-imposed censorship Wednesday

Hundreds, if not thousands, of websites are expected to go dark or alter themselves Wednesday to protest proposed U.S. anti-piracy legislation that many believe goes too far fighting online copyright and trademark infringement.

Josh Levy, campaign manager for Free Press, said in a Tuesday conference call supporting the protest that “This is the biggest revolt we’ve seen online” against U.S. legislation.

The websites are expected to participate in the protest against the Senate’s Protect IP Act and the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act. They include brand names like Wikipedia, Wired, BoingBoing and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to little-known sites likes political action committee DemocracyForAmerica.

But what’s all the fuss about? Here’s an explainer of the basics of the bills, the protests and how you make your voice heard.

What prompted the protest?

*The expected protest comes despite the White House announcing Saturday it would not support the bills if they mandate changes to internet infrastructure, which was the most egregious provision in the measures that prompted the protests.

Leaders in the House and Senate also buckled to widespread pressure and announced they would at least temporarily remove those DNS-redirecting requirements. That provision would have required ISPs to prevent Americans from visiting blacklisted sites by altering the system known as DNS that turns site names like Google.com into IP addresses such as Instead, for the blacklisted sites, ISPs would have to lie to their customers and tell their browsers that the site doesn’t exist.

Unfortunately, that has serious security implications and undermines government-led efforts to prevent hackers from hijacking the net’s naming system in order to scam users. Those sites would disappear in a process that security experts said would damage internet security.

The SOPA and PIPA measures are now being reworked behind closed doors and are expected to exclude the DNS language.

If DNS blacklisting is off the table, why the protest?

While DNS blacklisting was the most egregious portion of the bill and a clear indicator that Congress didn’t know what it was doing, what’s left in the bills continue to have serious implications on the First Amendment and online freedom.

The bills give the Justice Department the power to seek court orders requiring search engines like Google not to render search results for infringing websites. (The proposals are vague and broad when it comes to defining an infringing site.)

The bills also allow the Justice Department to order internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T to block their users from visiting blacklisted sites. That would be unprecedented in the United States, though it’s a common tactic used in countries like Syria, Iran and China to clamp down on political dissent and adult content.

The SOPA proposal bars the distribution of tools and services designed to get around such blacklists. The ban could arguably cover tools such as VPNs and Tor used by human rights groups, government officials and businesses to protect their communications and evade online spying and filtering.

The proposals grant rights holders the ability to demand that judges order ad networks and financial institutions to refrain from doing business with sites right holders say are infringing.

The measures also give out legal immunity to ad networks and financial institutions that choose, without a court order, to stop placing ads or processing transactions for websites they deem are dedicated to infringing activity.

Copyright holders would face little penalty for filing takedown claims without doing due diligence or considering “fair use,” encouraging even more abuse of copyright takedown lawsuits.

Why are these bills on the table?

They are in response to Big Content’s (.pdf) arguments that hundreds of thousands of jobs are lost every year due to pirate websites. These numbers are largely unsubstantiated and rest on the assumption that if a person had not gotten a copy of a movie online, they would have paid full price for a DVD or CD.

On the other side, much of the tech world maintains that the open nature of the internet has created millions of jobs, that millions of people pay for content online and that copyright and trademark holders already have the legal tools to fight infringement.

Does the government or Big Content have a history of abusing the takedown process?

Unfortunately, copyright holders don’t always play fair. Universal Music already believes it does not have to consider fair use when sending YouTube a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The U.S. government has seized  and shut down a website for a year before giving it back to a New York music blogger falsely accused of facilitating copyright infringement.

What sites are targeted?
The legislation for the most part is directed at foreign websites dedicated to infringing activities. Think the Pirate Bay, for one, which supports itself with advertising. Sites ending in .com, .org or .net generally are not targeted, but the government says it already has the power to seize and shut down sites on those top-level domains in a program known as “Operation in Our Sites.”

However, the orders to block infringing sites will go to U.S.-based search engines, ad networks, payment processors and ISPs.

What’s the status of the bills?

The House bill is expected to return next month to the Judiciary Committee for a vote or possibly more testimony. The Senate bill could either go back to committee or it could just be replaced and voted on by the full Senate. No announcement has been made.

Who has sponsored these measures and who is against them?

These measures are not a partisan issue. SOPA’s chief sponsor is Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the House Judiciary Committee chairman and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The measure’s biggest critics include Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Reps. Darrell Issa (R-California) and Zoe Lofgren (D-California).