SOPA's own version of the safe harbor rule grants immunity from DNS takedowns to ISPs and websites that voluntarily block content they believe to be in violation of SOPA. This is so incredibly abusable that I'm shocked it's even being considered; it would allow any ISP to preferentially block content from a competitor as long as it could say it had reason to believe there was copyright violation involved. Imagine your ISP blocking a competing ISP's website because of "an anonymous tip" about copyright violation, or webhost Comcast blocking video streaming services that compete with its own NBC. Worse yet, imagine an MMO publisher that also owns an ISP throttling or blocking competing games, in clear violation of the principles of net neutrality. This is clearly a law created by people who fundamentally do not understand how the internet works.
SOPA has three major enforcement mechanisms: DNS takedowns, court orders to banks and advertisers, and search engine delisting. The possibility of a corporation getting a court order to cut off a foreign website's access to funds from the US could have dire consequences for startup game studios around the world. Startups won't have the financial backing to stay afloat while a challenge goes through a US court; they may not have the funds to even fight such a case. Delisting an upcoming online game from search engines could also destroy its launch, and Google may also be obligated to delist every gaming news website that linked to the offending website.
What I'm talking about is the most disgraceful form of censorship, with which any corporation with a strong enough legal team can try to erase a competitor from the web entirely at strategic times just by citing belief of copyright violation. The most contentious issue with SOPA has of course been the provision for DNS takedowns. If the law goes into effect, it will allow a corporation that believes its copyright is being infringed upon to get an entire website delisted from the domain name service so that it's inaccessible. This could be disastrous for online gaming, as shutting down an MMO's website via a DNS takedown request would also kill access to any game servers that resolve under subdomains of that domain.
The provisions of SOPA technically don't apply to US websites, only to foreign websites that are accessible in the US. Unfortunately, this too is a legal gray area as most popular websites are not hosted in one particular location. Google has servers around the world, and all of its services are accessible globally. What should really get you worried is that many MMOs and other online games have servers distributed throughout the world to reduce lag by directing players to a local server. Imagine waking up one morning to find the entire RIFT website and its game servers blocked in the US because people on an EU server were sharing links to copyrighted material in chat. It may sound far fetched, but it's all within the scope of SOPA.
At least it stops piracy, right?
If this weren't such a serious issue, I would be laughing at how ineffective the provisions in SOPA will actually be at combating piracy. Takedowns can be easily countered by anyone with half an ounce of wit, rendering it almost farcical that the anyone in the entertainment industries is supporting the bill. When a website hosting pirate material is taken down by its webhosts or domain host, which already happens regularly despite there usually being no legal basis for it, the website can be back online within minutes. If the domain is seized, which has also happened without a legal basis, a new one can be created and within a few hours the new name can proliferate through social media.
Taking a domain name out of the DNS register does nothing to stop people accessing the website, as it can still be accessed via its IP address, and there's no legal way to stop people sharing that. I could write a small piece of software in five minutes that would run in the background and resolve the IP of any website whose DNS record had been taken down through SOPA, thereby bypassing the entire system. People have already started working on browser extensions and alternate public DNS servers to nullify the effects of SOPA; the bill isn't even law yet and it's already obsolete.
Belarus made it illegal for foreign websites to offer goods and services to the country's citizens, and further made it illegal to access pornographic or extremist websites. Spain followed suit, with its newly elected government putting the controversial Sinde law into effect. Wikileaks reported that the US actually helped draft the Sinde law and threatened to put Spain on a trade blacklist if it wasn't put into force, a move that isn't altogether surprising since SOPA's being fast-tracked through the US government at the same time.
Copyright protection is a colossal issue for the games industry, but bills like SOPA will do nothing to stop it and will cost the world a great deal in personal freedoms. I think the way forward to combat game piracy will be to adopt the same model as the music industry. ITunes reduced the effort threshold to buying music legally so much that millions of users prefer it over pirating, YouTube Vevo monetises popular music through advertising, and a lot of money has been moving to live performances. For games, this model would involve both making it extremely easy for players to buy a game and offering a better product than it's possible to pirate.
Steam is the players' DRM and purchasing-platform of choice; offering free updates or downloadable content on Steam can go a long way to securing a sale and keeping honest people honest. Hard copies of games (even non-collector editions) can continue to offer things you can't easily pirate, like high-quality maps, posters, collectible pen drives and beautiful artwork books or manuals. MMOs in particular are largely insulated from piracy as the online community is what sells an MMO, so perhaps we should see a lot more games for which online play is the main selling point. Ultimately, the best way to combat piracy is just to offer a better product than the pirates.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!