Unless you drowned yourself in a bathtub full of eggnog over the holidays, hopefully you are at least superficially aware of the Stop Online Piracy Act.

The House of Representatives is considering the bill, known as SOPA for short, that people fear will destroy the Internet as we know it.

Last week, Elie and I were “debating” the insidiousness of SOPA on Gchat. Our conversation went something like this:

Elie: SOPA is terrible.
Chris: It’s pretty much the worst thing ever.
Elie: It’s f***ing disastrous.

Elie and I aren’t the only ones upset. The Internet has whipped into a tizzy over the act. We mentioned it last week in Non-Sequiturs. And I wrote about it back in November. But the story has kept picking up speed. Reddit has gone mad over the bill. Just before the new year, a bunch of Biglaw firms got mistakenly dragged into the fray.

Keep reading for a primer on SOPA and its sister Senate bill, the Protect IP Act. And see why a bunch of Biglaw firms were unintentionally listed as supporters after the jump.…

SOPA supposedly targets foreign “rogue websites” that host illegal copies of videos, songs, or photos. If signed into law, Internet service providers will be forced to deny customers access to violating domain names. Search engines like Google will have to modify their results to exclude foreign websites that host the illegal material. Payment providers, such as PayPal, will have to shut down accounts for the websites. And ad services, such as Google’s AdSense, will have to refuse business with any of these sites.

Additionally, payment processors and ad networks will have to shut down accounts if they simply receive the right kind of letter from the RIAA, MPAA, or other copyright holder. This is similar to the stupid Digital Millennium Copyright Act rules that led YouTube to take down the slideshow I made for my dad’s 50th birthday because it included snippets of popular ’70s songs. Except SOPA is worse, because there are no protections for the American payment processors. They simply have to block the allegedly offending account (within five days) unless the foreign customer promises to appear in a US court.

Oh yeah, and SOPA gives legal immunity to ISPs that block allegedly infringing content without having to be prodded. (Comcast, a major Internet service provider, also owns NBC. No conflict of interest there…)

The Verge gets to the crux of SOPA’s problem:

Now, you may have noticed that while all these rules are totally insane, they’re all at least theoretically restricted to foreign sites — defined by SOPA as sites with servers located outside the US. That’s important to know: at its simplest level, SOPA is a kneejerk reaction to the fundamental nature of the internet, which was explicitly designed to ignore outmoded and inconvenient concepts like the continuing existence of the United States. Because US copyright holders generally can’t drag a foreign web site into US courts to get them to stop stealing and distributing their work, SOPA allows them to go after the ISPs, ad networks, and payment processors that are in the United States. It is a law borne of the blind logic of revenge: the movie studios can’t punish the real pirates, so they are attacking the network instead.

In the renegade spirit of the web, the best and funniest explanation of SOPA comes courtesy of Adolf Hitler. It’s worth watching the tyrant’s imagined conversation with his advisers in this version of the Internet meme, which parodies the movie Downfall.

So how did Biglaw get caught up in this? Just before Christmas, the US Chamber of Commerce and House Judiciary Committee were trumpeting a long list of major companies that supported the act. these included Go Daddy, D.C. comics (as Elie lamented), and law firms including Morrison & Foerster, Davis Wright Tremaine, Irell & Manella, Covington & Burling.

A tipster e-mailed us just before New Year’s, asking, “Why doesn’t ATL do some real investigative journalism and reach out to the firms appearing on the House Judiciary Committee’s list of SOPA-supporting companies? It’s disturbing that so-called top firms… would lend their support to a piece of legislation with serious constitutional flaws, notwithstanding their probable desire to appease certain clients.”

We would have, but by the time we emerged from our holiday hangovers, the original support list had disappeared, and a new version did not mention a single law firm. WTF mate?

Well, it turns out these firms never supported the bills in the first place. As Techdirt found out, the list makers were little overzealous.

A group of lawyers with a history of working in entertainment did send a letter to the judiciary committee stating their agreement with Cahill Gordon partner Floyd Abrams‘s controversial legal justification of SOPA, arguing it does not conflict with the First Amendment. Their firms had nothing to do with it, and the letter states that “firm names are listed in this letter solely to assist in attorney identification.” But the judiciary committee added the attorneys’ firms the support list anyway.

According to Techdirt, “From what we’ve heard, many of those law firms are not happy, and have been demanding removal from the Judiciary Committee’s official list.”

The firms have since been removed from the list, so it looks like the confusion has been cleared up.

We should hear more soon, once Congress resumes debate on SOPA. Who knows where this will lead. But I’m going to start praying to the Internet deities for salvation.

What SOPA and PIPA do [The Verge]

Law Firms Removing Their Name From SOPA Supporters’ List; SOPA ‘Support’ Crumbling [TechDirt]

Previously: New Piracy Bill Could Lead to National Censorship Nightmare


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