You may have been one of the millions of people who experienced first-hand one of the most effective political protests of our generation yesterday. Due to the courage of companies like Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, and Wordpress, if you didn't know already, you now know what SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) are. They are the bills in front of the US Congress right now that could drastically change the way that organizations of all sizes use the Internet.
SOPA would allow the US Department of Justice, as well as individual and corporate copyright holders, to seek court orders against websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. There are three main points that membership and marketing professionals who are managing or planning an online community should know about regarding SOPA:
Fact: Online communities promote social interactions, user-generated content, and collaboration.
SOPA Implications: By allowing your members or customer to post text, images, audio, or video to your online community, you are risking severe penalties if a user knowingly or unknowingly posts copyrighted material.
Fact: In most private social networks, users control what they publish, not the community-sponsor.
SOPA Implications: Though it may be a member or customer who violated the law, copyright holders could have your website removed from search engine listings or completely blacklisted in the US. With a simple letter (taken on "good faith"), the accuser can take down your website (the accuser does not have to appear in court first).
Fact: Unlike large public social networks, companies or associations that provide private online communities for customers or members do not have the resources to police and verify every post.
SOPA Implications: Many organizations would decide that the risk of having their entire website taken down without due process or a chance to rectify the situation as a result of rouge blog comment, photo, or video is enough to shutter their online community - leaving their customers or members without the information, support, and expertise they need to be successful.
While originally intended to stop the online piracy of copyrighted content and other intellectual piracy by foreign websites, the law is structured in a way that would impact large search engines and social networks, as well as smaller association-based or company-based online communities. Here are 7 examples that apply to both businesses and nonprofit membership organizations:
- Blogs. Blog posts would need more vetting, comments would need to be disabled, and content creators who link to other websites they may be in violation of SOPA (like blogs, Facebook, etc.) would also be at risk of having their site taken offline.
- Wikis: Wikis would be rendered useless since the host company cannot control the content being posted.
- Advocacy Tracking Tools. Allowing your association members to comment on what is important to them could put your organization at risk.
- Member Profiles. We have all seen people use quotes, logos, or famous photos in their social profiles (example: after Steve Jobs died). Under SOPA, this could result in your enitre website/domain being blacklisted.
- Discussion Forums. Forums would have to be disabled since community members could post copyrighted content to your group.
- File & Media Libraries. All documents, audio files, and videos would need to go through a stringent legal evaluation process before being accepted and published in your online community. Online community members would no longer being able to comment of files or media.
- Product Management Tools. Using social tools in your online community to enable your target audience to provide feedback on your products and your market would open your company up to the risk of copyright infringement.
While online piracy is a problem, congress must find a way to crack down on illegal piracy while leaving the value of private online communities and social networks intact. Here is an excellent explanation of the problems with SOPA and PIPA and what you can do to help stop them in their current forms.