SOPA Won’t Stop Online Piracy, Would Censor Everyone Else

Anti-piracy bills in U.S. House and Senate would block sites with infringing content, but empower the government to censor anything it deems unlawful.

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There’s a disturbing bill making the rounds on Capitol Hill right now called the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. It’s purportedly designed to thwart music and movie piracy by empowering copyright holders to isolate and shut down websites or online services found with infringing content. SOPA is the House version of the bill, introduced by Representative Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), and there’s another in the Senate called the Protect IP Act, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Hearings on SOPA began Wednesday, and the chances it’ll pass are excellent, because it’s backed by powerful business lobbies and has bipartisan majority support in both the House and Senate. If it does pass, the only thing that could shut it down would be a veto by President Obama.

In short, SOPA, if passed, would allow the U.S. government to blacklist any website found to have infringing material, inhibiting access to said sites using DNS filtering techniques similar to those employed by China and Iran. What’s “infringing material”? Anything deemed in violation of copyright, say a few posts by users in a web forum or on a social network—even links sent in email. What’s more, a website or Internet communication medium’s owners would be held liable for any infringing content, and the government would be empowered to cut off revenue to those sites’ owners and force search engines to block them, too.

(MORE: Congress’s Piracy Blacklist Plan: A Cure Worse than the Disease?)

SOPA’s under fire from Internet activist groups, but also several of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest, for what—though supporting the intent of the legislation—they argue amounts to serious overreaching. Take Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, for instance, who lambasted the bill while visiting MIT on Wednesday.

“The solutions are draconian,” said Schmidt. “There’s a bill that would require [Internet service providers] to remove URLs from the Web, which is also known as censorship last time I checked.” What would Schmidt do instead? Trace payments to websites that offer infringing material.

Schmidt’s comments follow a letter opposing both bills, sent to Congress by companies including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, eBay and Twitter. In the letter, which appeared in a full-page New York Times ad on Wednesday, the companies wrote: “We are concerned that these measures pose a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job creation, as well as to our nation’s cybersecurity.”

Social blogging service Tumblr just weighed in, too, writing of the bills that, “As written, they would betray more than a decade of U.S. policy and advocacy of Internet freedom by establishing a censorship system using the same domain blacklisting technologies pioneered by China and Iran.”

What’s more, Yahoo in October exited the business trade group that supports the bill, and according to the Washington Post, Google and the Consumer Electronics Association are threatening to do so as well.

The trouble with SOPA, censorship issues notwithstanding, is that at best, it’ll only curtail casual piracy. Pirate sites, the most obvious culprits, would continue to exist and be accessible directly by their IP address (the bill doesn’t support outright IP blocking).

If someone wants something badly enough, they’ll figure out how to get it. If someone wants into your home badly enough, they’ll figure out a way to break in. They’ll face consequences if they’re caught, just as copyright infringers do, but short of hiring your own private army and creating disincentives so unwieldy they render everything else about living in or around your house impossible, there’s little you can do to prevent someone who’s determined to from breaking the law. That doesn’t make it okay, it’s just a way of illustrating how some “solutions” can be so severe they throw the baby out with the bath water.

I’ll let my Techland colleague Jerry Brito, who says it very well here, sum up what’s at stake:

On the margin…DNS filtering will no doubt reduce piracy. But what we have to ask ourselves is, at what cost? And that cost is legitimizing government blacklists of forbidden information… The result could be a virtually broken Internet where some sites exist for half the world and not for the other. The alternative is to leave the DNS alone and focus (as the bills also do) on going after the cash flow of rogue websites. As frustrating as it must be for the content owners who are getting ripped off, there are some cures worse than the disease.

MORE: Verisign Seeks Authority to Shut Down Websites Without Court Orders

Disclosure: Time Inc. parent company Time Warner supports SOPA legislation.

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.