Stanford Law School Becomes Hub for SOPA Debate

November 16 saw an ominous black bar with the words ‘Stop Censorship’ splashed across the headers of several prominent websites. The origin of the bar was AmericanCensorship.Org, the website that currently serves as the base for growing opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

SOPA was introduced to the House of Representatives last month and is now before the House Judiciary Committee waiting for a verdict on December 14.

The SOPA is aimed at championing the intellectual property rights of content producers. It comprises a seventy-seven page document containing proposals that range from blocking search engine results to blocking revenue received by websites from advertising networks..

By increasing penalties on the illegal distribution of copyrighted content and by conferring felony status on acts of digital privacy, the act is a purported response to the rise of ‘rogue’ websites that distribute pirated digital content such as movies and music.

The Center for Internet and Society (CIS) at the Stanford Law School is quickly turning into a hub for debate around the bill, with academics, technologists and industry representatives coming together to stall SOPA’s increasing momentum.

“It’s really easy to think that the industry association will handle the bill” said Barbara Van Schewick, director of the CIS, talking about who will oppose the bill. “But nothing is more important than picking up your phone and speaking to your Representative.”

In an attempt to bring SOPA to the forefront of public opinion and to raise awareness about the act’s impact, the CIS held an open panel discussion on Wednesday titled “What’s wrong with SOPA?” The panel consisted of some of the most prominent figures in cyber law, business, and technology, including David Ulevitch, OpenDNS founder, Paul Vixie, Internet Systems Consortium chairman, and Fred Von Lohmann, Google senior counsel.. Representing startups and investors were Albert Wenger, partner at Union Square Ventures, and Josh Mendelsohn, partner at Hattery.

The discussion focused on  how SOPA will effect the different stakeholders involved. “To sum it up,” commented Professor Lamley in the discussion, “the House is trying to fix laws that don’t need changing. That’s a hard message, but they need to see that this bill doesn’t fix anything.”

The scope of the Act, argued the panel, far exceeds the domain of piracy prevention. SOPA’s mandate is controversial for a number of reasons, perhaps most potent of which is its purported violation of due process. “It seems likely that content owners (or people merely claiming to be content owners) will often succeed in shutting down websites without ever going to court,” wrote Julie Ahrens, associate director of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society’s Fair Use Project.

As a result of the extrajudicial control that the act gives content owners over websites, responses to the proposal have been polarized. Some of the bill’s most vocal proponents have been the Motion Picture Association of America and the RIAA. They, in turn, enjoy support from major content creators  such as Hollywood studios and recording labels who see SOPA as crucial to protecting their  property.

Some of the largest technology companies including Google, Facebook, Zynga, Twitter, Yahoo and other mass content sites such as Tumblr and Reddit put up a united front against the passing of SOPA last week. The Act, argues the tech lobby, will restrict the ability of entrepreneurs and companies to innovate freely by increasing unnecessary self-censorship. In an open letter to Representatives on Thursday, nine major organizations including eBay, AOL and Mozilla argued. for a joint reworking of the act to tackle piracy better without compromising innovation in the technology sector.

The concerns of these groups center around the civil liberties the SOPA may potentially violate. The bill could enable the government to engage in deep packet inspection of browsing activity, make proxy servers that are vital for citizen movements illegal and enforce the same kind of Doman Name Server (DNS) blocking used in China, Iran and Syria for political sites.

While the SOPA was introduced as a bipartisan bill, so has been its criticism, with Nancy Pelosi and Darrel Issa coming together to protest the bill. California Republican representative Issa was quoted last week as saying that the bill has little chance of going through.

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