What SOPA means for PR professionals

The controversial Stop Online Piracy Act will create enormous obstacles for communicators, and the PR industry should take a stand against the legislation, according to the author.


On Monday, U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor shelved the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), leading many to think the legislation is dead. It can, however, be resurrected at any time. Meanwhile, its Senate counterpart, PIPA, is still very much alive even as support for it declines.

Even though the House won’t vote on the bill, Wikipedia and Reddit are among those that plan to go ahead with site blackouts on Wednesday, Jan. 18, to raise awareness of the damage SOPA and PIPA could do.

I haven’t heard of a single public relations agency or association planning to join the blackout or even take a stand on SOPA. The profession should take a stand and add its voice to the rising chorus of opposition.

That’s a tall order since the supporters of the legislation, from large media empires to small copyright owners, are PR clients. If I represented a client supporting SOPA, I certainly wouldn’t risk the engagement by publicizing my opposition on my website.

The profession as a whole, though, has to recognize that these bills pose a threat to PR’s ability to serve its clients interests in the increasingly vital online world.

How would SOPA affect communicators’ use of the Web?

Sharing and social sites

Long gone are the days when companies host videos and other media on their own servers. YouTube is the de facto location for videos, Flickr for photos, Slideshare for presentations.

Companies are also using links to Facebook in advertising and marketing instead of their own websites.

SOPA threatens all that content, as long as it resides on a .com, .org or .net domain. All it takes is for a user to upload a video, a photo or a presentation that violates someone’s copyright—even if it’s someone singing a cover of a song at a party—and under SOPA, Internet service providers could be ordered to block the domain name.

When YouTube goes dark, so will the links embedded on your own site and any others that lead to your YouTube videos. Ditto photos on photo-sharing sites and presentations on sites like Slideshare and Scribd.

Let’s take it one step farther. Imagine launching a contest for your fans to submit content (like Doritos does for its Super Bowl commercial). And suppose one of those videos includes a snippet of a song used innocently and that you don’t recognize as copyright-protected. Your client’s own site should be blocked as a result.

The legislation includes no due process at all; there is virtually no appeal process for an organization whose site is blocked.

Aggregation and curation sites—such as Delicious and Storify—could also be affected. If I add an item to one of my Storify stories, for example, and don’t realize it contains an infringing bit of content, it could be enough to lead to a complete block of the site’s domain.

Search engine optimization

Your clients have probably spent a fair amount of time and money optimizing for search. Some of that expenditure may be your agency’s own billable time. Under SOPA, however, sites like Google would be required to alter their search results to exclude non-U.S. websites that host offending content. The investment those clients made will vanish if their sites no longer appear on search engine results pages.

Advertising

Ad services like Google AdSense would be required to reject ads or payment from the sites that host offending content, which could affect your clients’ strategies for generating income.

Security

Security experts have been casting about for some time for a better method of securing domain names. This year, the Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) solution is set to launch. SOPA threatens it. Writing for Volokh Conspiracy, Stewart Baker explained the problem in plain English:

“SOPA envisions the AG telling ISPs to block the address of http://www.piracy.com so the browsers get no information about http://www.piracy.com from the ISP’s DNS server. Faced with silence from that server, the browser will go into fraud-prevention mode, casting about to find another DNS server that can give it the address. Eventually, it will find a server in, say, Canada. Free from the Attorney’ General’s jurisdiction, the server will provide a signed address for piracy.com, and the browser will take its user to the authenticated site.

“That’s what the browser should do if it’s dealing with a hijacked DNS server. But browser code can’t tell the Attorney General from a hijacker, so it will end up treating them both the same. And from the AG’s point of view, the browser’s efforts to find an authoritative DNS server will look like a deliberate effort to evade his blocking order.”

Not only does this undermine the launch of DNSSEC, it puts your clients at risk for legal action they didn’t do anything to deserve.

Payments

If your client accepts online payments via their websites using PayPal or other services, those payments could stop. PayPal and its peers could be required to shut down the accounts of non-U.S. websites that host offending content.

Non-U.S. domains

Let’s say you have a client in Canada whose Canadian site is deemed to host content that violates copyright. Since SOPA blocks only “domestic Internet protocol addresses,” you’d think the Canadian site that serves Canadians would be safe.

However, IP addresses are allocated by regional, not national, organizations. The American Registry for Internet Names (ARIN) is the service in the U.S., but its regional territory also covers Canada and 20 countries in the Caribbean. Since SOPA sees all IP addresses issued by ARIN as domestic, the Canadian site would be blocked.

Finding talent

PR practitioners are finding greater uses of voiceover talent for everything from podcasts to videos. Voice casting sites host clips from voice talent. Sometimes these individuals read copyrighted works, which would lead to an order for ISPs to block access to the domain.

These sites have led to voice talent from rural areas getting work, but according to one of these sites—Voice123—the result would be to “drive work back to cities and put thousands out of work.” It would also limit the range of talent to which you have access.

The voice talent issue is also an example of the scorched-earth approach SOPA takes. It would be only a matter of time before other legitimate content that communicators need vanishes from the Web.

But wait. Isn’t piracy bad?

SOPA and PIPA are the result of lobbying by entertainment companies seeking a remedy to piracy of their content. None of those opposing the legislation believe piracy is acceptable, only that the proposed remedies cause far more damage than they stop.

Opposition is widespread. The list of Internet luminaries speaking out against SOPA is huge and reads like a who’s who of technology leadership. Eighty-three of the Web’s most prominent inventors, founders and engineers signed an open letter to Congress outlining the bills’ flaws. The American Civil Liberties Union is among those with a page making it easy for visitors to speak out against the bill to their representatives, noting, “SOPA eliminates the concept of sites ‘dedicated to infringing activity’ and enables law enforcement to target all sites that contain some infringing content, no matter how trivial.”

The White House announced it would veto the act. Even one of PIPA’s sponsors announced he’d vote against it, although he’d continue co-sponsoring the bill in order to facilitate discussion.

The retreat from the bills is based on the widespread opposition that led tens of thousands of people to shift their domains from GoDaddy, which flip-flopped on its support of SOPA in the wake of the defections. Reddit’s campaign against one legislator led Rep. Paul Ryan to voice his own opposition to the bill.

Besides, these pieces of legislation won’t actually stop piracy.

The right side of history

SOPA may be shelved and PIPA may be bound for a similar fate, but that doesn’t mean the forces behind the legislation won’t be back to try again. It’s in our own interest as communicators to take a stand against any legislation that threatens the freedom of expression on the Web.

As Google’s Sergey Brin put it, “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,” speaking of measures taken by powers like China and Iran to prevent access to content they don’t want people to see.

The consequences to our ability to do our jobs as communicators and counselors are at risk from these bills and those that will replace them. It’s time for our profession to unite in opposing these kinds of measures and to advocate for approaches to addressing piracy that might actually work.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. A version of this story first appeared on his blog a shel of my former self.

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