Internet Censorship and the Church

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Today, as you browse the internet, you may see a handful of websites shut down or install new pop-up banners in protest of something called SOPA.

SOPA, some of you may recall from 9th grade language class, is Spanish for soup. But as you might guess, the internet is up in arms about something more than a bowl of Tortilla Soup. SOPA, in this case, stands for Stop Online Piracy Act. The bill also goes by it’s more official name from the House of Representatives, H.R. 3261.

While many of us may skip over legislation in the news, since it rarely has a direct connection to our lives, this piece could be unintentionally damaging to the way churches conduct their ministries. As a result, while Clark doesn’t officially support or oppose legislation, we are strongly suggesting you familiarize yourself with this bill. [Click here for a link to H.R. 3261].

Granted, this is unfamiliar territory to many. The church in America is better known for it’s opposition of Gay Marriage and Pro Choice laws than an interest in technology legislation. This is understandable, perhaps, because assaults on the family are easier for the church to identify, while the specialized terminology surrounding tech law doesn’t necessarily trigger our red flags. But, in actuality, this law would have wide ranging effect on the church, possibly allowing for a new level of censorship that could restrict the way Christian values and the Gospel of Jesus Christ are currently transmitted in our culture.

As Clark travels around the Untied States serving the local church and leading them in technology shaping decisions, we notice that many leaders struggle to understand or are completely unaware of how Net Neutrality or SOPA could impact their congregation and church ministry at large. As shapers and influencers of how the church uses technology, we feel compelled to help fill in these gaps and educate leaders by offering a quick overview of this legislation.

The following explanation, then, isn’t legal jargon. I’m not a lawyer. It’s just a practical summary offered by a well-informed friend who notices a car driving in your blind spot that could potentially cause some damage down the road.

Some background

To understand SOPA, it is first helpful to understand Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality holds that there should be NO restrictions on internet access, meaning that neither the government or internet service providers should be able to restrict how or what consumers access online. This is the principle that guides internet usage in America today.

However, in recent years, legislation keeps popping up that would put restrictions on broadband services. The way service providers commonly limit a person’s access, for example, is by charging consumers for the type of content they access and charging content providers for the type of content they want to provide. This allows the cable companies to charge consumers more for using the internet to watch videos as well as to charge the web host more for streaming video.

To those not versed in the amount of bandwidth these services use, this legislation may sound fair on the surface. Until I tell you that you could be slapped with the same fee even if you are using the exact same amount of bandwidth accessing 10mbs of video as you would accessing 10mbs of word documents.

So, we’d watch a few less videos, right? Unfortunately, the impact is much wider than that. The bill could potentially allow cable companies to price churches out of being able to stream online video, which means it would kill the technology necessary to support online viewing of church services.

Imagine waking up one day and realizing the online campus you and your staff labored over for the past year will now cost each family $30 more a month to access. Or even worse, imagine the hosting fees that originally cost your church $50 a month now spike to $1,500.

You can start to see how tech law could change the game for churches, right?

What is SOPA and what does it mean for the church?

SOPA is designed to fight piracy of copyrighted material online. [Click here to access bill.] It seeks to prevent people from illegally distributing movies, music videos and other content that they haven’t purchased.

Take a look at this section, for example:

“…the U.S.-directed site is primarily designed or operated for the purpose of, has only limited purpose or use other than, or is marketed by its operator or another acting in concert with that operator for use in, offering goods or services in a manner that engages in,  enables, or facilitates infringement…”

Doesn’t sound bad, right? Who would want to create or run a site that would enable users to violate copyrights? We at Clark, of course, agree with this intention, as we do not condone the stealing or redistribution of copyrighted work.

However, this law doesn’t just target illegal distribution networks. It restricts everyone—churches, individuals, small businesses—who runs a website.
Any site that allows a user to upload content (think Facebook, You Tube, and any interactive portions of your church website) would fall under the restrictions issued by SOPA. That means comment pages, forums, photo-sharing and other platforms for interacting could become immediate violations of this law.

When a law unnecessarily restricts consumers who are operating within their legal rights, then, it gives us cause for reflection.

Many of us probably hear this and think to ourselves, in the worst case scenario, we’d have to disable commenting and eliminate sharing features. But it actually goes far beyond that. The wording of the law allows web hosts and users to be issued violations any time they engage in or enable the infringement of copyrighted work. And when left undefined, this means organizations like churches—who regularly provide content—could come under close scrutiny.

Using a song that you fail to get permission for? Showing a video clip as an illustration? A streamed video where the pastor is wearing a third-party company logo (like Nike or Hurley)?  All of these could be technically slapped with “3rd Party” copyright infringement, which allows a company to hold you legally responsible for something used indirectly in your video.

But, you may be saying, even these laws can be understood, right? If we use a song, you may be thinking, we should have permission. Same with a video clip. (Though I doubt any of us are ready to start editing our wardrobe to eliminate possible copyright violations.) If a court of law establishes that an organization is using film or music without permission, it’s reasonable that they would expect some sort of restitution, right?

The key word here is reasonable. Unfortunately, SOPA does NOT require due process. That means copyright holders (a music label, a publisher, a company acting on behalf of a brand) only needs to issue a claim to cut off services to you or your church. They would be able to report violations to PayPal, Visa, Google, Godaddy and a variety of other companies, who would then be authorized to take your site offline and freeze your ability to receive funds.

The ramifications of this law become much bigger suddenly, right? Potentially, your church website could stop appearing in Google results, the URL of your church site would take internet browsers to a blank filler page, and your ability to receive electronic donations via PayPal could be cut off.

This post, of course, is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of the SOPA bill, but a summary of the potential dangers churches might want to protect against. SOPA is a lengthy bill, with many more details, including the right to charge an individual or organization with a felony for sharing (or in some way enabling the sharing) of copyrighted work valued at $2,500 or more.

While Clark doesn’t lobby for political action, as it is outside the mission of our company, we do encourage our community to educate themselves on legislation like this so they can determine whether it is appropriate to act in defense of their rights. With the internet quickly becoming the number one way people access information about faith, legislation like this could set back the established channels some use to discover and grow in their relationship with Jesus.

In the larger picture, we of course suggest that it’s wise to be thoughtful not just about this piece of legislation, but about any issue that impacts the huge role technology is playing in shaping the future Church in America.

Mark is the Brand Manager and Director of Marketing for Clark. Before working at Clark, Mark spent most of the last decade leading the media efforts of various mega churches.
  • Carlack7

    Very well written and informational Thanks for putting it in language that anyone can understand the effects this bill could have on our every day lives in ministry!