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How The Stop Online Piracy Act Could Impact Journalists

Unless you’re wholly entrenched in the daily goings on of Internet and copyright law, SOPA might be one of those things you hadn’t even heard of until this morning, when sites like BoingBoing and Tumblr and GigaOm launched posts explaining and condemning it. SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill introduced into the House that, according to a New York Times OpEd, “would empower the attorney general to create a blacklist of sites to be blocked by Internet service providers, search engines, payment providers and advertising networks, all without a court hearing or a trial. [SOPA] goes further, allowing private companies to sue service providers for even briefly and unknowingly hosting content that infringes on copyright.”

Sounds pretty scary, right? The SOPA hearings started in the House today, and that’s why today has been declared American Censorship Day. Numerous companies and websites are attempting to raise awareness about SOPA in an attempt to “save the Internet” and hopefully block the passage of the law. But so far, according to Techdirt, the odds are stacked 5 to 1 in favor of passing the bill.

SOPA has many implications for casual Internet users, but for journalists the repercussions of SOPA passing could be immense. Here are a few ways in which the passage of SOPA could impact journalists and their organizations.

1. Your Articles Could Be Censored

Say you’re writing an article, and one of the websites or quotes that you want to reference comes from a site that has been accused of piracy. Even if your piece does not include anything that could be considered copyright infringing, if it links to a source that does–a source as innocuous as a YouTube video or a Tumblr post–your entire article could be blocked from the Internet in the US. According to Fight for the Future, “This law would give government and corporations the power to block sites like BoingBoing over infringing links on at least one webpage posted by their users.”

2. Multimedia and Citizen Journalism Would Suffer

Want to upload a video from the Occupy Wall Street protests to YouTube? Or maybe upload an audio interview to Soundcloud? If SOPA passes, these sites would be entirely responsible for the actions of their users. That means that if just one user posts content deemed illegal by SOPA, the entire website could be blocked. Platforms that are integral to both citizen journalism and successful multimedia journalism could effectively cease to exist. As Rebecca MacKinnon writes in the New York Times, SOPA ”would also emulate China’s system of corporate “self-discipline,” making companies liable for users’ actions. The burden would be on the Web site operator to prove that the site was not being used for copyright infringement. The effect on user-generated sites like YouTube would be chilling.”

3. Innovation Would Be Stifled

One of the most exciting things about being a journalist in this day and age is that we have constant access to amazing digital tools that can help us tell better stories. Projects like Guardian Beta frequently test startups to see which ones work and don’t work, and attempt to figure out how they can incorporate emerging technologies into their websites. If SOPA passes, the legal risks of starting an online venture would greatly increase, de-incentivizing innovation and creativity. ReadWriteWeb has a great infographic from AmericanCensorship.org that explains, “As a result [of SOPA], sites’ self-censorship increases dramatically. Fewer startups launch, due to riskier legal climate.”

SOPA’s implications are wide-ranging, and if passed, could impact everyone from casual Internet users to news organizations. What do you think of the Stop Online Piracy Act?

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