Proponents of web freedom received an unlikely Christmas present last week, when the House Judiciary Committee decided at the last minute to delay a full vote on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), in order to continue examination of concerns raised about technical aspects of the bill's implementation. This delay comes as a welcome relief for opponents of the bill who feared that passage was all but assured.
One such opponent is Reddit General Manager Erik Martin. In a comment posted yesterday to a thread on Reddit, he laid out Reddit's official position on the matter in terms that deftly explain why the bill will be terrible for online culture:
"If SOPA passes in anything like it's current form, it would almost certainly mean the end of reddit. It may not happen overnight, but we have a very small staff (~11, mostly engineers), and even dealing with DMCA stuff is a big burden for us. SOPA would make running reddit near impossible. And we have access to great lawyers through our parent company. I can't imagine how smaller sites without those kind of resources could even attempt a go at it if SOPA passes."
What Martin is referring to are some of SOPA's nastier provisions. If passed it would provide copyright holders with an accountability-free framework in which they can have a site shut down based on mere accusation of infringement without first notifying them or giving them a chance to contest the charges. SOPA also defines key concepts so vaguely, and sets such a low threshold for accusers, that an entire site could be brought down based on a single instance of supposed infringement, including a stray hyperlink. In other words, it would deprive website owners of their rights under the fourth amendment in order to deny those guaranteed by the first amendment.
At the same time, SOPA also massive changes to the current domain name system (among other things), changes that critics insist would make the Internet vastly less secure. Though it has been argued the bill's stated intent would prevent abuse, in a follow up to his earlier comment, Martin illustrated a fear echoed across the tech world. "[T]he analysis from experts in press and various experts we have consulted independently," Martin says, "is that there is way too much room for US sites like reddit to be targeted. 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. Given our experience with DMCA, it's a safe assumption that various rights holders will use SOPA in such a way that US companies like reddit are impacted."
The delay in a vote on SOPA gives opponents crucial additional time in which to increase the pressure on wavering representatives who might be able to stop the bill entirely. It's also worth noting that similar attempts to break the Internet in years past have failed. However, SOPA has surprising support and it's still very possible it will pass, a terrible fate not only for Americans, but for Internet users the world over. Those suggesting that the law will largely affect only American Internet users are discounting the fact that, being an American invention, a vast amount of websites and online businesses are based in the US. Or more succinctly, the Reddit thread that Martin posted on says, simply, "Reddit is centered in New York City. If you didn't know it already, that's in America. So is Google, and YouTube, and Facebook. You people outside of the US aren't exactly getting the better end of the deal. Think about it." Indeed.
Hearings on the bill will resume when congress goes back in session in 2012.