Will Wednesday's SOPA Blackout Deliver a Black Eye to Small Business?

Michael Essany Headshot by Michael Essany on January 17, 2012
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According to impassioned opponents of online piracy, the United States of America is under attack today from pirates who continue to imperil the economy by illegally distributing American-made entertainment and other counterfeit products.

As a result of this increasingly widespread view, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in October 2011 to address the perceived crisis of contemporary piracy.

While SOPA gained steam in the House, a similar bill — the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) — emerged in the U.S. Senate. Both aim to curtail the illegal copying of movies, music, and various forms of digital and electronically published content.

In response to the proposed and highly controversial legislation, major internet-based companies like Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, and Twitter have vehemently voiced their opposition.

Washing Their Hands of SOPA

Although the online giants object to the bills, it isn’t because they support piracy. Instead, they say they find fault with how the proposed legislation would virtually mandate the companies to intrusively police their users while taking responsibility for their actions.

At the heart of the debate is a provision that American ISPs could be ordered by courts to stop routing web requests to foreign websites via the publicly operated Domain Name System (DNS). The implication is that this would put the U.S. government in a role of presiding over what can and can’t be seen online — policies which have sparked revolutions in other parts of the world.

“While I support their goal of reducing copyright infringement (which I don’t believe these acts would accomplish), I am shocked that our lawmakers would contemplate such measures that would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world,” Google co-founder Sergey Brin stated on Google+ in December.

 Major Protests Planned

Wikipedia and Reddit are planning a bold move in protest to SOPA and PIPA on Wednesday.

Both sites are going dark.

In addition to the voluntary blackouts initiated by several of the web’s biggest properties, a potentially large number of smaller web-based companies and small businesses are expected to similarly participate in the protest by taking their sites offline. In the big picture, however, such a move could actually be harmful to the companies that have worked so hard to elevate their Google search rankings and Internet posturing.

Small businesses that replace some of all of their online content with an error message or a statement of protest could see their rankings suffer, especially if the blackout is protracted. Fortunately, on Monday Google guru Pierre Far released a comprehensive Google+ post outlining how businesses can responsibly protest without erasing their hard-earned SEO success.

In the long run, of course, it’s not the blackouts that could give the biggest black eye to small businesses — it’s the proposed legislation that prompted the blackouts to begin with.

Critics of SOPA and PIPA say a business that merely stands “accused” of copyright infringement could still be temporarily blacklisted or shut down. And before a “not guilty” verdict comes, irreparable damage could be done to the business and its shoppers.

Will SOPA or PIPA Become Law?

While it remains to be seen if and how the bills will make it out of Congress and to President Obama (who has already expressed concerns about the over-reaching aims of the legislation and its potential for abuse), a growing number of beltway insiders believe SOPA and PIPA stand diminished chances of being passed as they currently exist.

In a January 14 post on the official White House blog, Aneesh Chopra, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, and two colleagues observed that while they they believe “that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet.”

Stay tuned… at least while the lights are still on.

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