The dreaded Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is in the rearview mirror, dead now for more than a year and a half. And activists are pushing hard for it to stay that way—even though there's only the slightest whisper of a return.
Since August, more than 100,000 people have signed a White House petition titled "Stop SOPA 2013." A new campaign by the activist group Fight For the Future, integral to the original fight, proclaims that "One of the stupidest parts of SOPA is back."
But there's no such bill pending in Congress. No politician is openly willing to touch the subject after a popular Internet strike and call-in protest left Congress "shell shocked" back in January 2012. Chris Dodd, a former senator and current head of the Motion Picture Association of America—one of SOPA's biggest lobbyists in Congress—may have initially threatened a SOPA return, but he quietly backed down a few months later.
SOPA was most infamous, at least in the form that was slated for a congressional vote, for leaving any website that welcomes contributors vulnerable to a takedown over potential copyright infringement. In other words, any site that invited user-submitted content, or even allowed comments, could easily be shut down or censored.
That wasn't the entirety of the bill, though. One of its lesser-publicized tenets would have harmonized the criminal penalties for both streaming and distributing copyrighted work. The former is just a misdemeanor at the moment; the latter can be charged as a felony.
When Dodd declared SOPA “dead” last October, he announced that the MPAA no longer saw legislation as the answer to the content industry’s problems. Since then, his focus has shifted to making deals with tech companies. Last week, the MPAA called on Google and other search engines to voluntarily hide infringing sites from their search results, and it released a new study implicating Google in 82 percent of online piracy cases.
“Search engines bear responsibility for introducing people to infringing content—even people who aren’t actively looking for it,” Dodd said at a press conference.
But if legislation is dead, and the MPAA’s new strategy is a full-court press against search engines, what’s got activists up in arms about a possible SOPA 2.0?
In July, the Department of Commerce's Internet Policy Task Force published a green paper—meant to sum up debate, not influence it—called Copyright Policy, Creativity, and Innovation in the Digital Economy, which mentions that a possible way to reform copyright is to make sure illegal streaming and illegal downloads have the same criminal penalties—by making them both felonies. That could, down the road, lead to a SOPA revival.
"While at this point it's only a suggestion, our feeling is that it's important for the Internet to collectively shout ‘HELL NO!’ anytime anything that even smells like SOPA pops up," Fight for the Future's Evan Greer told the Daily Dot. "There are powerful interests with lots of money who are lobbying hard to get stronger copyright enforcement back on the table, and even though Congress is obviously timid after the SOPA blackout, we still have to remain vigilant."
Greer is among those who believe that felony charges for streaming copyrighted content could lead to jail time for, for instance, uploading themselves covering songs. Not everyone agrees with that interpretation. But her hunch about one thing is absolutely correct: An House Judiciary Committee aide told the Daily Dot that the committee would likely take up the issue in an upcoming hearing and has held regular talks on copyright reform since April.
From there, it is possible that a SOPA-like bill could be introduced in the House. A petition in 2012 prompted a White House acknowledgement of the public's opposition to SOPA. If Greer and Co. get their way, they'll have already a similar response in their back pocket by the time anybody in Congress even thinks about making a bill out of it.
Illustration by Jason Reed