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Today's Stack Overflow system message reads:

SOPA is a dangerous law. It breaks the Internet and threatens sites like Stack Overflow. Protect the Internet!

How is it a threat to Stack Overflow?

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Politicians passing laws. Wait, you want more of a reason? –  Won't Nov 29 '11 at 16:01
Related: Can people outside the US help with SOPA? –  Nick Craver Nov 29 '11 at 16:08
It will be an irony if "Stack Overflow careers" helps the US Govt. finding the programmers to write the code for finding such so called "piracy" websites. –  iammilind Nov 29 '11 at 16:09
Isn't information by itself public and no one owns it? I mean 1+1=2 math doesn't belong to anyone or any professor's for that matter. So, does SOPA means no one can learn on their own but at colleges and grade schools only? –  Thayananthan Narayanan Nov 29 '11 at 17:20
The message also should ideally link to this topic. –  Ambo100 Nov 29 '11 at 17:55
The Greek word "σώπα" (SOPA) means "shut up" –  Nick Dandoulakis Nov 29 '11 at 18:44
Could be the fastest Famous Question and Great Question in history... –  The Unhandled Exception Nov 29 '11 at 23:14
@Matt Being on top of Hacker News for several hours will do that. –  Jeremy Banks Nov 29 '11 at 23:21
I'm shocked (actually the opposite) that this reputation magnet question hasn't been closed. I've never seen such a concentration of upvotes for such an opinion-based question. LOL –  kingdango Nov 30 '11 at 0:46
Sounds like this legislation was made with wikileaks in mind... –  Benjol Nov 30 '11 at 9:08
The fun thing is though, they would want to use this to stop piracy, but it's just a matter of using a nameserver in the E.U. That you know the IP of. This law will harm websites like SO and FB, but it can't do squat against a pirate that knows how to use google (unless they take down google, and search engines in general for displaying copyrighted information). –  Alxandr Nov 30 '11 at 12:12
The whole SOPA and PROTECT IP thing is a power play to leverage the Internet community into a compromise which would allow the acceptance of a removal of anonymous internet usage. –  RandyMorris Nov 30 '11 at 12:47
Come on! This is never going to happen. Do you the think the likes of Facebook and Youtube are going allow this law to proceed? ;-) –  TrojanName Nov 30 '11 at 13:36
Sorry everyone, non-US-citizen here.. Will this affect only the United States, or any site anywhere publishing copyrighted information around the world? Though regardless of the range, it looks like it'll be far worse than what happened to mininova, right? –  Nonym Nov 30 '11 at 15:38
@NickDandoulakis: you remind me of the movie "My big fat greek wedding" –  Dan Dec 1 '11 at 13:19
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8 Answers

The American Censorship link includes a lot of information about what this US law would change and how it would affect user-generated content sites like Stack Overflow.

Currently, if someone posts copyright material to Stack Overflow, there is a well-established legal procedure (called the DMCA) that establishes how the copyright owner can get that material removed. That law, while imperfect, has done a great job of balancing the interests of copyright holders and websites that host user-generated content (like us).

So for example, right now we receive takedown notices from professors demanding that we remove technical information because they claim that students are using it to cheat, people who claim that we are posting questions that they use in job interviews, and so forth. If we took down everything somebody wanted us to take down, the Internet would be worse. Right now, under the DMCA, we require the person making the complaint to send us a complete DMCA take down notice. This must include, among other things:

  • contact information
  • a statement that he has a good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.
  • a statement that the information in the notification is accurate
  • a statement that, under penalty of perjury, the filer is authorized to act for the copyright holder
  • a signature

This requirement deters an awful lot of people who are randomly trying to censor Stack Overflow for hosting answers that they don't find convenient.

We respond by notifying the person who posted the material, giving them a chance to make a case for why the material is non-infringing.

The important thing about DMCA is that if we follow this fairly decent procedure, we, as a website, are legally protected from the claim that we contributed to the copyright violation.

The SOPA dramatically alters the careful balance in favor of "alleged" copyright holders. It makes it impossible for websites to find a reasonable safe harbor allowing them to continue to host user-generated content. And that is life-threatening for websites like Stack Exchange.

See also: Text of the bill - PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet on Vimeo - SOPA infographic

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What can the global users outside the US do about it? –  Oded Nov 29 '11 at 16:02
@Oded Stack Overflow is hosted on the US, so if SOPA is used to shut down SO, it will affect global users as well. –  NullUserException อ_อ Nov 29 '11 at 16:06
Will a workaround like hosting Stackexchange sites outside US work ? –  Unicornaddict Nov 29 '11 at 16:24
No, the worst part of SOPA is a provision that would REQUIRE US-based internet providers to block/break DNS for foreign websites, which is how it censors the internet –  Joel Spolsky Nov 29 '11 at 16:29
Welcome to North Korea... –  Patrik Nov 29 '11 at 16:42
I think an explanation as detailed as you write for DMCA is needed for the SOPA angle. At the risk of sounding pedantic, but what about the balance the DMCA provides is being altered? Does SOPA negate the DMCA? Work around it? Conflict with it? I think that's part that is missing from a lot of summary articles. The infographic is a bit too broad to really explain this in a way that makes real sense and, unless one has legal training or experience, reading the text of the law is a real drag. –  Philip Regan Nov 29 '11 at 17:07
What is happening to "the land of freedom"? –  jmfsg Nov 29 '11 at 17:07
A link to this question / answer in the notification on the SO front page would be nice imho. –  Jeroen Nov 29 '11 at 17:14
@JuanManuel Commies, Juan. Damn commies. –  NullUserException อ_อ Nov 29 '11 at 17:34
Stack Exchange is worried?! Now I'm scared. –  John Nov 29 '11 at 17:34
Keep in mind that SOPA is bad enough that organizations that would normally support tougher copyright standards are starting to back away from it. One such organization being the Business Software Alliance (BSA). –  Powerlord Nov 29 '11 at 17:54
As mentioned by Philip Regan, this answer would benefit from explaining how the scenario contemplated here (a company trying to get interview questions removed and a professor trying to get exam questions removed) would be affected by SOPA. Based on my reading (and IANAL), any action under SOPA would require the DOJ or the copyright holder to first get a court order. I have a hard time imagining a professor or a company starting court processing to get exam or interview questions off this site, and even more a judge granting that order. –  Alessandro Vernet Nov 29 '11 at 19:55
I'm with Philip on this and would like to know why YOU think SOPA changes anything with regards to the DMCA. My understanding of SOPA is that it requires the DOJ to get involved or for the copyright holder to get a court holder. This is vastly different than having Professor X tell your ISP that you have infringing content. As it would be much harder for the silly professor to get the attention of the DOJ or a court then it is for them to properly fill out a DMCA take down notice. Quite frankly the vast majority of sites out there would be just fine. –  Chris Lively Nov 29 '11 at 19:58
I'm old enough to remember when the DMCA was evil. –  John K Nov 30 '11 at 6:35
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If someone posts copyrighted material, Stack Overflow can be shut down for hosting it. Therefore they would need to somehow censor their users.

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While Spolsky's answer is more detailed, this one can be explained in an elevator ride. Short, simple, and to the point - I could even see something much like this being an alternative system message to the current one, which isn't very specific and instead just uses "threaten" and "shut down" in a manner than could invoke doubt. –  Kevin Vermeer Nov 29 '11 at 16:18
I think "blocked" is more suitable then shut down. SO would still exist, but no one in the US would be able to reach it via US based DNS, but it could still be reached through foreign DNS or a direct IP address. While for the average user, who probably doesn't know the IP of SO, or even how to connect through it, it will be "shut down" in essence, the site is only blocked. I may have mis-read the bill, but I don't believe sites can be shut down, but access can be removed. Technical nitpicking. –  shmeeps Nov 29 '11 at 18:46
@shmeeps SOPA covers blocking direct IP access –  Tinister Nov 29 '11 at 19:30
My mistake then. Ignore my previous comment, thanks for the correction. –  shmeeps Nov 29 '11 at 19:37
This is misleading. It should say "Stack Overflow can be shut down for IGNORING THE DOJ AND/OR COURT ORDERS with regards to copyrighted material." In other words, it is meaningless in terms of this site. –  Chris Lively Nov 29 '11 at 20:09
@Chris It's my understanding that unlike DMCA, SOPA has no safe harbor clause, so it requires pro-active enforcement on the part of the hosting site in order to not be found guilty of copyright infringement on user posted content. By the time things proceed to the point of court orders being issued a site is already considered to be infringing and subject to punitive damages. –  Orclev Nov 29 '11 at 20:37
To expand on my previous comment, the OP is somewhat misleading in that the real danger to SO is not directly in being shut down (although it could be indirectly shut down by SOPA), but in being forced to decide between draconian levels of censorship on user posts that would cripple the site, or risking (the near certainty) of being found guilty on multiple counts of copyright infringement. If SO decides to host outside the US in order to avoid being sued for copyright infringement that's when the SOPA blacklisting comes into play and would effectively de-list SO from the internet. –  Orclev Nov 29 '11 at 21:15
@Orclev: The stack exchange sites by their very nature provide enforcement. There is a rather large community here that actively polices the content of this site, so that's a non-starter. Regardless, again, it takes the Attorney General and/or a court order to take a site down, safe harbor isn't exactly necessary. –  Chris Lively Nov 29 '11 at 23:45
@Orclev: and, the bleeding obvious, Stack Overflow is a "domestic" site by the bills definition and not part of the target. –  Chris Lively Nov 30 '11 at 0:01
@Chris: Safe harbor is necessary because, depending on jurisdiction, court orders can be rather easy to obtain. And that's where things get really, really dicey. Look at the Chanel case and how they are able to seize domains without prior contestation. That's on Ars Technica now. So a site like SO could be nuked without any real hard proof. –  K. Brian Kelley Nov 30 '11 at 0:03
@K.BrianKelley: Do me a favor. Go read the bill. Then have your browser highlight the word "foreign" and read it again. SO is not affected.. at all. –  Chris Lively Nov 30 '11 at 0:05
@Chris You need to read the rest of the bill. Only section 102 is limited to foreign sites. The rest of the bill applies to both foreign and domestic sites. e.g. Section 104(1) "is a foreign infringing site or is an Internet site" The definition of Internet site is not limited to foreign sites. –  Craig Nov 30 '11 at 3:25
@Craig: finish the section: "is a foreign infringing site or is an internet site dedicated to theft of U.S. property;" either way, that section applies to immunity from retaliatory lawsuits when a site is taken down. The definition for Foreign Internet Sites is pretty clear. –  Chris Lively Nov 30 '11 at 14:29
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In order to protect Stack Overflow, Super User, and Server Fault from a flood of "How do I use ssh to get around The Great Firewall of America" it is important this law does not pass.

The system message is the least intrusive method we could come up with (vs writing regexes and parsers to try to detect those questions once the law passes). I hope you understand that this was purely a technical decision.

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"I hope you understand that this was purely a technical decision." I...seriously? Good luck with that –  Michael Mrozek Nov 29 '11 at 16:17
It's sarcasm, @MichaelMrozek. (I have to believe this; I don't know if I can go on if Kyle's primary concern about SOPA is "people asking how to circumvent it on SOFU.") –  Pops Nov 29 '11 at 16:21
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SOPA is bad for anyone who uses & depends upon the Internet. Hyperbole? No.

Brad Feld, a former entrepreneur-turned VC, has written a letter to be sent to our (I live in Colorado also) senators and has, through the post below, asked other CO entrepreneurs to become co-signatories prior to sending it.

As stated by Joel, Brad and dozens of others, the DMCA supplies copyright-holders remedies while providing safe harbor to hosting entities. This is fair, reasonable and practical. SOPA, in contrast, is unbalanced, unfair and would make it practically impossible for a hosting entity, such as StackExchange, Freepository, GitHub, or even Brad's own to conduct business without undue vetting, filtering and policing of content. It would place enormous legal & technical risk upon hosters, so much so that many (most?) would be unable to start, or if already going, to survive such a takedown action.

While the letter Brad penned is intended for Colorado's senators, perhaps it could be used as a basis for other such letters by StackExchange readers.

Editing to include another open letter from over on the O'Reilly blog - jbminn

Editing once more to include this analysis by Lawrence Tribe, Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard, who states SOPA violates the First Amendment - jbminn

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This may be mostly opinion, I don't know, but it seems that many of the technology-affecting laws that find themselves under consideration at the national level in the U.S. are written, bought and paid for by the entertainment industry (MPAA and RIAA) and wind up trampling individual's rights as well as established fair-use doctrine.

This proposal is no different from that perspective., but it adds the bonus that findings in a court of law are not required for requests for takedown. All you have to do is show some sort of evidence to law enforcement (whether it's real or not, who knows) and BAM, site gone. Apparently there is some judicial review, but it's pretty similar to DMCA, which was also awesome from the point of freedom of speech technologists.</sarcasm>

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Unfortunately this is indeed precisely the case. And it's the reason for our #OWS and other similar movements. –  jcolebrand Nov 29 '11 at 16:23
Jesse, you're saying "All you have to do is show some sort of evidence to law enforcement". But just based what I read on the SOPA Wikipedia page, for action to be taken against a site under SOAP, the DOJ or copyright holder must first get a court order, like say for a retraining order, which is a completely different story. Am I missing something? –  Alessandro Vernet Nov 29 '11 at 20:05
Let me find my source where I read that and let you know what I find. If I can't find it, I'll strike that from my text. –  Jesse Slicer Nov 29 '11 at 20:31
@JesseSlicer The link you provided discusses the fact that a DMCA take down letter doesn't require judicial review. The problem is that DMCA can't do jack against a foreign internet site, hence SOPA. However SOPA still requires a court order to make it happen. –  Chris Lively Nov 30 '11 at 14:56
@ChrisLively Thanks, I'll edit that. But the other thing you seem to be saying is that the utterly crappy DMCA is now going global? –  Jesse Slicer Nov 30 '11 at 14:59
Kind of. If the Attorney General thinks that a foreign site is dedicated to IP theft, then the AG can petition the court to have access to the site blocked for US citizens. If approved US based ISPs have to comply quickly. The site can then petition the court to have a full review performed and access reinstated. The difference is that the DMCA allows an individual to send a takedown notice directly to the site and their ISP. If the site doesn't respond then the ISP can make the decision on whether to block access or not. –  Chris Lively Nov 30 '11 at 15:03
The problem congress is trying to solve is that foreign sites and ISPs can (and routinely do) completely ignore DCMA notices. As our laws do not apply to them there is currently no fallback position. So, the best they can do is block US citizens from accessing those sites. Quite simple, and IMHO, completely understandable. –  Chris Lively Nov 30 '11 at 15:05
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It's probably not the politicians themselves more than it is intense lobbying from Big Media. My position is that major media companies like Viacom are pressuring politicians (with money, perhaps even political or legal threats) to the point where they have essentially no choice but to follow through. We the people are being silenced by Big Media, and they are responsible for throwing the copyright system out of balance. A major organization called CCIA, which represents major computer and telecom companies, opposes SOPA as well. We need to stand up and fight back.

SOPA would result in censorship and make every website potentially vulnerable to being blocked. There are better ways to handle piracy, and the DMCA is already a robust means of handling infringing material. The President and CEO of CCIA, Ed Black, said this after the House Judiciary Committee hearing on SOPA (emphasis added):

While U.S. companies, including those CCIA represents depend on copyright law, the choice between rampant infringement and this overly burdensome plan to censor the Internet and cast tech and telecom companies as newly deputized patrol officers is a false choice. We can reduce piracy without censoring the Internet.


Part of the problem of not having a technical expert testifying today is the many misconceptions heard go unchallenged. Understanding the technology behind the Internet is complicated, and there are certainly signs from the statements today that members are being misled by those demanding this bill. But it would seem members should want to test that and discover the truth by being able to ask questions of all sides – at least some time before enacting such sweeping legislation that changes a key platform for our economic growth.

The misconceptions at this hearing are outrageous to those who understand how the Internet works and the laws currently in place to combat the real problem of online piracy. One representative even mistakenly stated that tech companies do nothing or next to nothing to curb piracy. What he and many others don’t understand is that tech companies have very real incentives under current law to respond quickly to reports of online infringement. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act provides liability protections to US companies for what users do on their sites. But that protection only comes in exchange for their cooperation in taking down infringing material when they’re alerted to it. So tech companies embrace this law and spend countless hours devoted to helping enforce existing laws. In fact, Google has had 5 million take downs today in response to DMCA – all without this new law – and they’re just one tech company.

To answer this question, yes, Stack Exchange is affected, and just one suspicious question, answer, or comment on any Stack Exchange site can cause all of the Stack Exchange sites to become blocked. As noted by Ed Black, this bill is essentially useless on actual, bad-faith pirate sites:

This bill will fail to actually stop traffic to infringing sites and will Balkanize Internet traffic, sending the real pirates to foreign DNS servers that can’t easily be monitored.

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So, given what has been stated above, would not a possible solution to SOPA be host applications like stackoverflow outside of the US and beyond the control of the US government? Or is the fact that the company behind those servers is still based in the US make this approach null and void?

In other words, does the proposed bill target the company hosting the information or the physical information itself?

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SOPA is specifically designed to go after companies that are entirely based outside the United States. Among other things it requires ISPs to block DNS lookups for companies that it considers to be offending, and it requires banks to prevent payment transfers to those companies. –  Joel Spolsky Nov 29 '11 at 18:36
That makes sense. And it definitely sucks. I seriously hope this bill get defeated. –  Chris Johnston Nov 29 '11 at 23:04
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I've posted this as comments, but it's really an answer to the question:
This law does not materially impact any of the Stack Exchange sites.

It empowers the Attorney General to take down sites that are infringing (section 102.b). However, the Attorney General must first send notice to the operators that s/he is going to proceed.

It empowers the Court System to take down sites that are infringing (section 102.c). Again, notice must be sent to the site operators giving them a chance to respond.

There are a few things to note:

The first is the laws stated purpose: to stop foreign internet sites whose primary purpose is engaging in trafficking of copyrighted material. Just search the document for terms "domestic" and "foreign" and see what it's talking about.

Second, this does not impact the DMCA.

Third, it does NOT mean that some random joe can simply complain and have a site taken completely off line. They are going to have to go through either the Attorney General or the Courts. Based on the language of the proposed law, both are going to look at whether the site in question derives its revenues primarily off of stolen copyrighted content.

The Stack Exchange sites obviously don't. Not only that they are DOMESTIC sites and pretty well excluded from the bill.

To sum up, the "internet" is not going to be broken by this.

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"Cost more for a person", it certainly won't cost any more for a corporation (exactly who this was designed by). The Fortune N company I work for is happy to hear about this new avenue for "digital loss protection". –  user7116 Nov 29 '11 at 21:52
The problem is the process for getting a court order: there's no hearing, you only have to tell the courts what you want to do. You file paperwork, the request is processed, and you then present it to an ISP, DNS Service, or payment processor. The target site may not go down, but it would certainly feel an impact. Now imagine a legal-help stack exchange site that attracts a few lawyers. It wouldn't take much for one bad question there to put SEI in a world of hurt. –  Joel Coehoorn Nov 29 '11 at 22:06
@JoelCoehoorn: could you please read the text of the bill. It is 100% targeted towards "foreign internet sites" (section 102.A). SEI is completely unaffected. –  Chris Lively Nov 29 '11 at 23:57
@ChrisLively You sir, are 100% wrong. That's just one of their targets; this can be used against sites hosted in the US all the same. Why do you think Google and Facebook are all up in arms about this? –  NullUserException อ_อ Nov 30 '11 at 1:55
"Second, this does not impact the DMCA." [citation needed] –  jadarnel27 Nov 30 '11 at 5:34
What the bill is targeted to do and what it will actually be used to do are not necessarily the same thing. –  Joel Coehoorn Nov 30 '11 at 5:39
@NullUserExceptionอ_อ: Google and Facebook have their own reasons that have nothing to do with applicability of this to SEI. How about you point to just one provision of this bill that applies to any of the stack exchange sites. –  Chris Lively Nov 30 '11 at 14:31
@JoelCoehoorn: I challenge you to point to a single provision of the SOPA bill that would apply to Stack Overflow. Even Spolsky in a comment on an above answer points out that it only applies to sites based OUTSIDE of the united states. Seems that he agrees with me. –  Chris Lively Nov 30 '11 at 14:32
@jadarnel27: the only citation needed is the bill itself. It applies to foreign internet sites. SO is a domestic site by the bill's definition. Simple logic dictates that it has zero impact on DMCA. –  Chris Lively Nov 30 '11 at 14:51
@ChrisLively The bill is intentionally vague and it can be used against both foreign and domestic sites, as long as it fits their definition of "infringing" (which is also intentionally vague). If it were 100% targeted towards foreign sites, would that mean all they (the "pirates") had to was to host their stuff here? Your argument is invalid. –  NullUserException อ_อ Nov 30 '11 at 18:55
@NullUserExceptionอ_อ: If it's hosted here, then they can use the DMCA. sigh –  Chris Lively Nov 30 '11 at 19:56
The phrase "It empowers the Attorney General to..." should scare the willies out of any sane person. The AG shouldn't be empowered to so much as wipe his arse without a court (jury) verdict! –  Awesome Poodles Dec 3 '11 at 5:41
I think that SOPA doesn't materially impact any SE sites the same way the No-Fly-List doesn't materially impact ordinary travelers. While the No-Fly-List is supposed to only prevent terrorists from flying, in reality it mostly inhibits people who aren't terrorists. What SOPA would do is create an Internet No-Fly-List, knocking legitimate sites offline while actual criminals find ways to circumvent it. –  Gabe Dec 12 '11 at 18:10
@AndrewBarber: I agree wholeheartedly. There are many real reasons to oppose SOPA; however made up ones don't help. –  Chris Lively Dec 13 '11 at 23:39
@ShelbyMooreIII: I'd just like to point out that whether this bill was put together by the "ruling elite" or not is immaterial to the discussion at hand. The question is quite simply "how does SOPA impact StackOverflow" The answer is that it doesn't. All other considerations are quite frankly off topic in light of that question. To that I'll add that I did not downvote your answer (no reason to be bothered with it) but I certainly agree with the other downvotes simply because you completely avoided the original question and went way off topic. –  Chris Lively Dec 14 '11 at 8:38
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