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Drew Brigham

Technical Director

By now, you’re probably aware of SOPA as there’s some big names supporting todays ‘Stop SOPA’ event by revoking access of their home page or creating a black-out effect on their site. You can read my colleague Matt's post from earlier today here.

What is SOPA?

SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act – a proposed anti-piracy bill that is being debates in the US Congress . SOPA is separate to the existing Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). SOPA has a lot of supporters because it’s trying to tackle copyright in general, which would not only cover the well-discussed film/music piracy issues, but also areas such as fake brands, fake medication, etc. Some of its supporters include NBC Universal, Comcast, Ford, Pfizer, Xerox, Walmart, News Corp, Estee Lauder, Disney, Visa, Tiffany, Pearson Education and even 3M.

Why Stop SOPA?

There’s also a lot of big names who are against SOPA: Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Bloomberg, Yahoo, AOL, Mozilla, Tumblr, Stack Overflow, OpenDNS, Internews, Reddit. There are also plenty of big-name founders: LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr, Netscape, Alexa, Craigslist, PayPal, Wikipedia and Blogger. But why try and stop a bill that’s has a ‘good’ purpose – to stop piracy? Many of the Stop SOPA supporters want to stop piracy, but feel that the bill it not well-defined enough. It’s too generalist and broad, and this means that it could have serious implications on not only the ‘freedom’ of the internet and creativity, but also increase the overheads of their services. So it’s not that they’re against SOPA’s intent, but many feel that it’s too ill-defined for the bill to be passed in its current state. Many of the supporters of ‘Stop SOPA’ are participating in today’s SOPA Blackout Day by either revoking access to their services, home pages, or simply creating a ‘black out’ effect on their sites to show their support.

How Can SOPA Affect SEO?

One of the primary objects of SOPA is to have copyright infringing sites ‘processed’ within five days of a request being made by the copyright holder. This means potentially removing the site form SERPs, access via ISPs, freezing any related payment accounts (e.g. PayPal) and generally removing them from the internet. In a perfect world, right and wrong are black and white and people never make mistakes. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. Anyone who’s ever been removed from SERPs by accident knows that it’s not a quick process being ‘put back in’, and getting your SEO status back to where it was pre-ban can be extremely hard work. What if your site (or a client’s site) is hacked and used to promote copyright infringing material? It can take a while to get Google's malicious site flag removed sometimes. How long would it take to recover from the effects of a SOPA takedown in this instance? Additionally, how long will a ban last? How will you appeal against a ban several years later if you need to use a banned (but now free to buy) domain? What if in five year's time we find that a huge proportion of URLs are banned under SOPA, reducing the available domain pool even further than it already is? Additionally, the extra time and money spent on search engines such as Google on applying SOPA will potentially divert funds (and creativity) from improving existing products and developing new ones.

Can SOPA Help SEO?

On the other hand, SOPA could have the potential to directly help SEO by allowing the faster removing of competing (and illegal) sites. For example, if your main client is a large brand such as Estee Lauder, or works in a small niche with a completely unique (copyrighted) product, SOPA would make it easier for you to ‘takedown’ sites competing in the same space that breach your clients copyright like a site selling illegal Estee Lauder fake products. This could therefore lead to better visibility in SERPs for long-tail traffic, more visits and potentially more conversions (assuming that they would make the same purchase from the official copyright holder in lieu). However, I’m not sure that the side effects of SOPA would create an overall benefit for SEO.

Whack-A-Mole

The article on SOPA by Search Engine Land makes an excellent comparison between trying to shut down copyright infringing domains with SOPA to a game of ‘whack-a-mole’ – simply because anyone who gets shut-down can quite easily set up under a new domain name. Just like spammers can start spamming from other email accounts or freshly compromised SMTP servers, it’s very hard to stop.

Alternatives For SOPA

The ‘whack-a-mole’ comparison makes it obvious that trying to ‘shut down’ the sites by removing them from SERPs and ISP access probably isn’t the right way.

DMCA

DMCA already covers copyright breach, although it’s probably not as ‘fast’ as some people would like, but that’s more of a process/implementation issue. I’m sure DMCA could be amended to make it more effective.

Education

More needs to be done to educate internet users on the topic of copyright infringement. Not only in terms of “it’s bad to download music illegally” but also in the sense that many physical products that breach copyright may not even be close to the real thing. This is one of the main concerns with buying medication online – there’s an awful lot of fake medication on the market at the moment. So there needs to be a stronger message that copyright infringement can have serious implications for consumers too, especially in relation to pharmaceutical products.

Banks – Payment Processing

More needs to be done to fight infringement from the root of the cause.  Various studies have been carried out to track down the specific banks and financial institutions that are favoured by scammers. In one study, the University of California spent several months infiltrating the three most popular fake Anti-Virus scams to try and determine which financial institutions are used to accept/process card payments – its’ quite a short list. There’s a reason these banks are favoured. Maybe they’re not as stringent as others or easier to access?

Banks – Payment Charges

On the other side of the coin, Brian Krebs highlights that one of the world’s largest rogue pharmacies had a large proportion of its customers using specific banks. Specifically, 15% of payments were made by customers using a Bank of America card. Could banks do more to educate their users and put more safeguards in place to check where payments are going?

Domain Authority & Banks

Could more be done to make the domain-purchasing process more secure? At the moment anyone can buy a domain, which is great, but should sites who accept payments (via PayPal or a bank) be put through more stringent security checks before they’re allowed to accept payments? What are your thoughts? - @MeniroDev