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SOPA, PIPA and Why You Should Care

How many Web pages do you look at in a day? Working at a Web design agency, a lot of us are online almost constantly–working, talking, writing and sharing content. And if you’re online now, reading this blog, you’ve probably heard about the proposed U.S. House bill called SOPA.

As you move around the Web today, you’ll discover sites that are blacked out to protest this legislation, which is currently on hold. Need an obscure name or date? Sorry, Wikipedia will be blacked out. Want to read blogs? WordPress will be “censoring” blogs too. Jonesing for a picture of a talking cat? Sorry, the “I Can Haz Cheezburger” people are on strike too.

So yes, it’s a big deal. Here’s why.

SOPA stands for Stop Online Piracy Act. It has been shelved for the time being in the House, waiting for legislators to “build a consensus” before taking a vote. The Senate is also looking to pass similar legislation, called PIPA. (That’s the Protect IP Act, not the curvaceous Middleton sister.) All of these high profile sites care about SOPA because it would allow copyright holders, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice, to get court orders against websites they accuse of copyright infringement.

Now, that doesn’t sound so awful, right? We all know you’re not supposed to steal music, videos and software. Here’s the catch: these court orders could prevent online advertising and commerce, keep the site in question from showing up in search results, and even force ISPs to block the site entirely—even before the allegations of copyright infringement have been substantiated. An accusation alone could potentially shut a site down. It’s the Internet equivalent of being held without bail.

Supporters of the bill say that it’s needed to clamp down on rampant copyright infringement online and to protect intellectual property. Some of SOPA/PIPA’s biggest fans are from Hollywood, and tired of having their TV, movies and music stolen.

The bill would make streaming copyrighted content a crime punishable by up to five years in jail for 10 instances over six months. (Sweating yet?)

Opponents, including Google, Facebook, Twitter and other Internet giants, say that the bill goes way too far, violates the First Amendment and would hamper creativity, free speech and the overall openness of the Internet community.

In the Wikipedia announcement of the blackout, Wikimedia editor Kat Walsh wrote:

“[K]nowledge has to be published somewhere for anyone to find and use it. Where it can be censored without due process, it hurts the speaker, the public, and Wikimedia. Where you can only speak if you have sufficient resources to fight legal challenges, or if your views are pre-approved by someone who does, the same narrow set of ideas already popular will continue to be all anyone has meaningful access to.”

The Internet is a community that allows an incredible amount of sharing and communication, and gives a voice to quite literally anyone with an Internet connection. As Web designers, bloggers and social media geeks, we believe that’s important. Many of your favorite websites are blacked out today because SOPA/PIPA would change the face of that community irrevocably, curtailing the free flow of information, ideas, and yes, cat pictures that makes the Internet so cool in the first place.

What do you think of SOPA/PIPA? Is it a good idea that goes too far, or something out of “1984?” Are you doing anything to protest SOPA today? Exercise your First Amendment rights and tell us in the comments!

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