White and Nerdy: Explaining SOPA vs GoDaddy for the Tech-Challenged

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When trying to explain the debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act and the involvement of domain name registrar GoDaddy in a staff meeting this week, my words were met with collective blank stares, as if I were speaking a different language. It is a look I often get from Web-design clients when I talk about "content development" or "dynamic code."

Before your eyes glaze over like my clients and colleagues at the Press, I figured I should put together a simple, non-nerd-friendly explanation of why people are so pissed at GoDaddy and what it has to do with SOPA...and what that even is.

Read on.

First, what is the Stop Online Piracy Act? Simply put, SOPA is a bill currently passing through the bowels of Congress (H.R. 3261) introduced by Lamar Smith (R-TX) that would expand the role of law enforcement in protecting the rights of copyright holders. On the surface, that doesn't sound like a terrible thing, but when you dig a little deeper, the problem becomes clear.

SOPA would empower people who own copyrights -- film companies, record labels and television networks, in particular -- to not only go after people who individually steal their content, but to go after anyone who aids them. In this case, that includes the hosting companies that unwittingly host the content, Internet service providers (Comcast, AT&T, etc.) who unknowingly provide access, search engines like Google for linking to them, advertising services for running ads on their sites and online banking services like PayPal for allowing them to do business through them.

If they cooperate, however, they get immunity.

In essence, it turns the Internet into a police state where every company is constantly searching for potential legal issues. Not only is it inefficient, but it creates the very real probability that things that aren't illegal will be shut down simply to protect the overseers from liability.

Now, what is GoDaddy? GoDaddy is a domain name registrar. Domain names like HoustonPress.com cannot be purchased. All domain names are public property, but they can be essentially leased on a yearly basis. Registrars like GoDaddy, Network Solutions, Register.com and others allow individuals and companies to lease domain names through them.

Without registrars, Web surfers would have to memorize number combinations called IP addresses to find sites. Imagine trying to remember 12.333.44.179 instead of Yahoo.com.

And why are they involved with SOPA? GoDaddy set itself apart as one of the very few online services to show support for SOPA. Most of the major online players -- Google, Ebay, AOL, Twitter, Facebook -- are in opposition, as are thousands upon thousands of nerds, and they are the last ones GoDaddy wanted to piss off.

When Web users heard of GoDaddy's stance, they immediately began transferring domains from GoDaddy to other registrars. At last count, more than 70,000 customers had moved their domains, costing GoDaddy a serious chunk of change when you consider the average domain owner spends at least $10 per year on a domain and many of them have multiple domain names under a single account. Do the math.

GoDaddy reversed itself and withdrew its support this week, but geeks weren't buying it and continued the mass exodus. As Zed in Men in Black said, "It's like the last one out gets stuck with the check." What does this mean to you? If you don't own domain names, it probably means a little less to you, but as someone who visits the Internet, you need to pay attention. This law is being pushed through Congress by monied lobbyists who represent some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry as a way of propping up flagging sales. Yes, their losses are, at least in the case of the music industry, largely due to piracy, but forcing the very companies that provide unfettered access to the Web to act as its moral and ethical guardians would force them to put the kind of clamps on it none of us want.

Imagine if every blog that occasionally used photos it found from a Google search -- fyi, it happens a lot -- was shut down simply out of fear they might be in violation of federal law. The chilling effect could be incalculable.

No one is clear on what the outcome will be at this point. The bill is still bouncing around Washington and could go either way. But, nerd or not, everyone has a vested interest in both protecting legitimate copyrights and keeping the Internet open and free from restriction. SOPA is not the answer.

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