The Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) currently under consideration in the U.S. Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives could change the way the Internet operates.

The goal of the legislation is to protect media companies against theft of their material. It ostensibly targets Websites hosted outside of the United States that infringe copyrighted material. The acts would force US Internet providers to block offending domain names. It also aims to cut off funding to infringing Websites by forcing advertiser and payment services to stop doing business with these Websites.

This all seems like a worthy objective but it goes about reaching its goals in the wrong fashion. While these acts may well slow piracy temporarily, they do not appear to be sufficiently enforceable—there are too many ways to beat the system. For example, an Internet user can simply enter the IP address of the Website and access the same Websites as before.

What’s worse about these claims is that they apply to any content that contains any copyrighted material. This means that if you post a video to YouTube that has a song playing in the background, you can face penalties. Just one infringing link could lead to the government and corporations being legally obligated to block any site from their networks. Not only is the content you post under scrutiny, any comments from your visitors can get you in trouble as well. Sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter would need to be constantly removing posts from users, assuming they survived.  The punishment for users who post copyrighted work can be up to five years in jail. Seems a little extreme, no?

The bills also explicitly give the U.S. government and corporations the ability to sue U.S.-based Websites, including search engines, containing links to infringing Websites. Whether you’re a socialist or a libertarian, the provision seems unfair given the sheer number of links on search engines. Full compliance is probably impossible.

The largest concern among opponents is that certain provisions in the bill grant immunity to payment processors and ad networks that cut off sites based on “reasonable” belief of infringements. This means it would be in the best interest of payment processors, ad networks, and search engines to cut off a site with claims against it, even if those claims are false.

How to use this Information
So what does this mean for your Website and your Web presence? For startup companies, especially ones that intend to have a lot of user interaction or plan to share a lot of content, it could be catastrophic. One claim against the company can bury it before it even gets off the ground.

For businesses with Websites and social media presences, it means monitoring all content that you and your consumers put on your Website and on social media sites as well. While this doesn’t sound like a large undertaking for most Websites that provide their own content and don’t allow users to post comments or links, it still means that due diligence must be used to ensure that not even one false claim can jeopardize your company. It also means that companies have to think twice about sharing other people’s content, even if it is just a funny YouTube video that is relevant to your customers. This act not only stifles the voice of the people but of your company as well.

Even if you feel that SOPA and PIPA are irrelevant to your company, they may have an impact on other companies with whom you do business; they would certainly have an impact on some of your favorite Websites that you and your customers interact with regularly. SOPA and PIPA stand to change the entire Internet experience and could devalue your investment in it.

Not surprisingly, the Internet is a great place to learn about and voice an opinion on these bills. Signing Google’s online petition is a great start. You can also voice your concern to your representative by contacting them directly or through their social media pages. Want more information? Read SOPA for yourself.