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SOPA, PIPA – Should Engineers Care

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On 18th January, among other estimated 10,000 web sites stopped their service in order to protest against the US legislation planning to endorse SOPA and PIPA.  Although the votes have been recently postponed, the Internet community needs to remain worried. Software engineers might think, that they are not affected by the legislation, especially if they are outside the U.S., but considering Big Data, Cloud Computing and other trends this could be a rather naive perspective.

According to Wikipedia, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) has been proposed by U.S. representative Lamar S. Smith  to expand the

ability of U.S. law enforcement to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods. Provisions include the requesting of court-orders to bar advertising networks and payment facilities from conducting business with infringing websites, and search engines from linking to the sites, and court orders requiring Internet service providers (ISP) to block access to the sites. The law would expand existing criminal laws to include streaming of copyright material, imposing a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

The PIPA (Protect IP Act) or more verbose, Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act, was introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, and  defines infringement

as distribution of illegal copies, counterfeit goods, or anti-digital rights management technology. Infringement exists if "facts or circumstances suggest [the site] is used, primarily as a means for engaging in, enabling, or facilitating the activities described." The bill says that it does not alter existing substantive trademark or copyright law.

SOPA and PIPA address the right goals but do they offer the right means? Opponents fear, SOPA and PIPA might threaten free speech and innovation due to the possibility to block whole domains if  infringement  material is found on one single place. The impact of such internet blocking can be experienced in countries like China. 

If an employee posted an illegal file on the company website, law enforcement could stop the whole company site, at least in theory. Basically, the legislation shifts the responsibility from the person breaking the law to the infrastructure or web provider. As companies increasingly provide and deploy web applications that offer exchange of information and content using globally distributed networks this risk is not just a theoretical one. The question is whether software engineers can design software that takes care of such copyright infringements or piracy.

A lot of IT experts have already expressed their opinion about SOPA and PIPA such as John Traenkenschuh ( InformIT), J.D. Hildenbrand (SD Times)
or game developers.

It seems to be common sense that copyright infringements and piracy should be prevented. But it also seems to be common sense that the price, bills like SOPA and PIPA cause, in terms of freedom of speech and innovation could be much too high. Software engineers could experience an immediate impact of these bills when developing web or cloud applications that include content or file sharing. So, according to many SOPA/PIPA opponents, they cannot just ignore these bills, neither as engineers nor as users of social sites.

Do you care? And, what's  your opinion about SOPA and PIPA?

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Community comments

  • Grey area

    by Roopesh Shenoy,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    On one hand, it feels similar to punishing the knife manufacturer if someone commits a murder using a knife of that make.

    On the other hand, any corporation is held responsible for their employees' actions. Whether its a penalty or criminal charges against the owners, its a totally different matter.

    I think the issue is the govt sees the power of the internet and sees that it is something it can't really regulate to a great extent. For instance (and this is just an example, it applies to all content based services) Facebook can't really say it cannot be responsible for its users actions, just as much as banks cannot say we don't care whether its a terrorist depositing illegal money in our bank. The problem really is that there has been businesses built during this completely unregulated period that can come crashing down if the regulations start getting formed. The key is to have a smooth transition and allowing everyone to start being compliant.

    Of course this will increase expenses and probably change the economics of the web. When a bank operates in several countries it has legal experts to ensure that the local laws are met. Web applications with global target market too will have to do something like that. Facebook might have to start charging users to make up for that cost. Whether its too much of a price we will be paying is up for debate.

    I don't know if you are aware but this seems to be a global phenomenon. There is a civil suit against FB/Google and a host of other sites going on in India, which holds these sites responsible for the content posted (and says just removing the said content after informing the sites is not good enough).

  • Absolutely

    by Mike Bria,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Thanks for the writeup, and well done. Yes, I care, and care deeply. This threatens us as consumers of the web, as those who tend their own business and livelihood via the web, and as software developers in general.

    I found Martin Fowler's "open letter" as a good representation of what I tend to think from a software guy perspective, so rather than recounting it, I'll refer you to the link:

    Stop SOPA. Stop PIPA.


  • Preventing copyright infringement

    by Ben Jansen,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    It seems to be common sense that copyright infringements and piracy should be prevented.

    No, it isn't common sense. Copyright infringement simply is not the problem that IP groups, such as MPAA, pretend it is. They are simply repeating the only strategy they know -- try to prevent new technology, instead of figuring out how to use it to better serve their customers.

    There are many articles that describe the technophobic history of the MPAA and RIAA. Here's one:

  • Re: Preventing copyright infringement

    by Ben Jansen,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Sorry to reply to my own post, but here's another article that even more directly addresses my point.

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