The great thing about SOPA is . . .

Even the chief information officers and IT managers that joined Wednesday’s protests against the proposed U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act must have some sense of how the bill’s sponsors and supporters feel.

Among the scarier aspects of SOPA is the potential threat it poses to anyone who links to a site with pirated content. As Omar El Akaad explained in a great backgrounder on SOPA in the Globe and Mail, “those doing the linking could be forced to first make sure the site is completely free of such content – an incredibly difficult task in the case of massive sites, such as YouTube.” Even worse, he added, “users of cloud storage or video hosting sites could find the entire site, along with their own content, suddenly much more difficult to access, because a single user uploaded a piece of copyrighted content.”

While SOPA and the proposed Protect IP Act (PIPA) may be among the most aggressive pieces of legislation to try and safeguard intellectual property, they offer a great opportunity for those in charge of enterprise IT to open up a constructive and necessary conversation about the nature of information management and potential liability. For years now, CIOs and IT managers have been the often-reluctant enforcers of rules that forbid or limit employees to post content, connect to or access various online sites and systems. Often those policies are either loudly challenged or (worse) quietly ignored. SOPA, ill-equipped as it might be to stem online infringement, represents a worst-case scenario for anyone who would treat the Web as a penalty-free playground.  It makes even the most draconian corporate usage policies seem tame.

When Wikipedia joined other sites in going dark Wednesday, most of the reaction seemed to be about the inability to access the popular online reference tool. But Wikipedia does a lot more than attract a huge audience. It also directs a huge audience to many other sites which are linked to its entries. Like search engines such as Google or social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter, it is a major “referrer” of traffic. Some companies ensure their URLs are on Wikipedia as part of their marketing strategy. If SOPA were to become law, however, that marketing strategy could be in serious jeopardy if even one small piece of Wikipedia’s content turns out to infringe on someone else’s copyright. Those who scream and holler to push their firms into using cloud services before a CIO has done their due diligence could put the entire organization at risk if the service in question runs afoul of SOPA or PIPA.

Much like putting information into online sites or services that lack appropriate IT security, users must ensure they handle technology in ways that don’t compromise organizations from a legal or compliance standpoint. As the consumerization of IT gains steam it has become ever more difficult for CIOs and IT managers to encourage responsible behavior without seeming like, well, the U.S. Department of Justice. While it’s unlikely the world will have to obey anything exactly like SOPA, some form of legislation that prohibits certain uses is likely to be passed by the U.S. one day. That’s why it makes sense now for IT departments to facilitate an internal dialogue that explores SOPA and PIPA more fully, beyond the knee-jerk resistance of Wednesday’s protests and in a way that prepares them for any potential changes in the way they can link, upload or otherwise use Web technologies. SOPA and PIPA may be stalled or scaled back, but they are ultimately preliminary battles in a war that will undoubtedly take more than a few casualties. Don’t be one of them.

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