What is SOPA? Or, what’s up with the internet today?

SOPA is the Stop Internet Piracy Act, also known as HR 3261. It was introduced late last year and it aims to fight online trafficking of copyrighted material. So, you know that episode of Downton Abbey that you watched on Sidereel last week? If you’re in America, SOPA would make it illegal for Google to help you find that, and for your internet service provider to let you access it, and would fine the site for streaming it. But, anti-SOPA advocates fear that it amounts to censorship, that it will make it harder to access information that is now readily available online and that it will threaten whistle-blowing and other acts of free speech and transparency. Opponents of SOPA claim that it is bad for democracy.

PIPA is the Protect Intellectual Property Act, also known as SB 968. It is intended to give the US government additional means by which to stop people from accessing sites that traffic counterfeit goods. Opponents claim that the law is bad for consumers and bad for the economy.

The Senate vote on SOPA is scheduled for January 24th. Today, January 18th, is a day of anti-SOPA and anti-PIPA action. Given that many of us are interested in the future of American democracy and the future of the American economy, lots of people are blacking out their websites today: Wikipedia, Google and Reddit to name three of the biggest and most noticeable.

If you’re wondering how SOPA would affect you, Colorlines has the clearest and simplest explanation:

If you create or consume content on the Internet, under SOPA the government would have the power to pull the plug on your website. If you’re a casual consumer, your favorite websites could be penalized and shut down if they seem to be illegally supporting copyrighted material.

This is especially important for human rights groups and advocates in communities of color, who could faced increased censorship if the bill is passed. The language of the bill makes it easy for the US Attorney General to go after websites it simply sees as a threat.

Or, as The Oatmeal puts it, SOPA is “like dealing with a lion that has escaped from the zoo by blasting some kittens with a flamethrower.”

Yahoo, YouTube and Twitter are also opposed to SOPA. Luckily, so is the White House: President Obama has made it clear that if the bill passes, he will veto it.

So, that’s why a lot of the websites you visit every day – and about 7, 000 sites in total – are down today. It’s not a glitch; it’s a political statement, a taste of what life would be like without free access to the wealth of information that exists online.

If you want to read more about SOPA and PIPA, look it up on (where else?) Wikipedia. They’re the only two entries available on that site today, anyway.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

Read more about Chloe

Join the Conversation