PIPA, SOPA and OPEN: Three acronyms that could change the Internet

How a few bills before Congress could alter the web forever.

If I start talking about bills before Congress that have to do with copyright enforcement, your eyes might start to glaze over and you might get kind of sleepy. It's cool. I understand. But WAKE UP! Because this is about who gets to control whether a website lives or dies, and whether you or anyone will be able to find it.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is preparing The OPEN Act, a measure designed to fight online piracy and the sale of counterfeit goods by going after those sites for trade violations. It would refer situations of copyright infringement to the International Trade Commission for investigation and action.

The act is something of a response to two earlier bills, passed out of committee in the House and Senate respectively: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PROTECT IP or just PIPA, a bill with a name so long it requires two rounds of abbreviation) in the Senate.

So what does this mean for you? Mark Lemley is a professor at Stanford Law School and director of the Stanford Program in Law, Science, and Technology. He's also a partner at the law firm Durie Tangri. Lemley says, "You ought to be worried because your website or site that you visit might suddenly disappear."

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) thinks legal content would end up getting banned along with the legal stuff and that would mean an economic hit. "Net-based business and technology," he says, "accounts for something like 20 percent of the job growth we've had in the last five years."

Although none of these bills are law just yet, that doesn't mean the U.S. government hasn't gone after people accused of violating copyright. The hip-hop blog dajaz1.com was taken down in a raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement a year ago and only recently was returned to the web. "The government asked for the seizure based on the allegations of copyright infringement of four songs to which the site allegedly linked," says Andrew Bridges, lawyer for the blogger who runs the site. "The government spent a year trying to make the case, apparently realized it could not make the case and they just said never mind."

But under SOPA and PROTECT IP, the federal government would have more muscle in those efforts and it would be easier to block sites, says Lemley. "It would give the United States government the ability to target a website solely because the government claimed it was facilitating somebody else's act of copyright infringement," he says. "They could then turn to every Internet service provider in the country, to every search engine, to every bank and every advertiser and say you must stop dealing with these people and in the case of Internet service providers, you can't pass traffic thought them, you can't have them show up in search results."

The OPEN Act (Online Protection & ENforcement of Digital Trade Act) would take an approach more similar to a laser than a shotgun, says Wyden, one of the bill's sponsors. He says, "If you're talking about foreign rogue entrepreneurs, particularly people who are trying to import, the International Trade Commission is the place to go."

Wyden can't know if his bill will eventually pass but he has promised to filibuster the PROTECT IP Act until it's dead. "I am not going to sit around and let one part of the American economy, which is the content industry, basically use government as a club to try to beat the stuffing out of folks who are innovative," he says.

Also in this program, a Finnish composer and computer programmer takes code and makes music out of it. It ain't exactly Mozart but it is technically music.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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