SOPA and PROTECT IP
|December 23, 2011||Posted by Elliot Davies under international, technology|
Imagine a world in which a government has the power to cut off access to foreign websites with a snap of its fingers. Imagine a world where a private company can use the country’s warped legal system to blockade a website’s finances without due process or any chance for objection. Imagine a world where the internet, envisioned as a free and global communications network, lies broken because politics, greed and naivety came first.
Sound like a dystopia? Perhaps it sounds like an extended version of modern day China, Iran or Malaysia. It might come as a surprise, then, to hear that the Congress of the United States of America is considering legislation which would allow all of the above – and it’s in danger of passing.
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives and its legislative twin in the Senate, the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property (PROTECT IP) act, would provide the United States Justice Department and America’s content industry with sweeping powers of censorship and authoritarian control over foreign websites, not only castrating free speech and damaging finances but also setting a dangerous precedent for other countries.
How has this come about? SOPA and PROTECT IP are derivatives of the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which failed to pass into law in 2010. But rather than being introduced as watered down versions of COICA, the new bills are instead more emboldened and dangerous than ever. Sponsored by supporters of the powerful media industry, PROTECT IP was introduced as S. 968 on May 12, 2011, followed by SOPA as H.R. 3261 on October 26th. The former passed the committee stage with a unanimous vote and moved to the floor on May 26th, while the latter remains at committee stage but is poised to be voted on.
Specifically, both bills are designed to make it easier for content providers to control their intellectual property and deal with copyright infringements and piracy from foreign websites. For American websites – those ending in .com, .net and .org – the content industry already has the more reasonable Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), where copyright owners are responsible for finding and dealing with copyright infringements. The DMCA provides a “safe harbour” for companies which make an effort to deal with these problems; for example, YouTube is protected so long as it continues to comply with takedown requests for videos. If a company refuses to remove content, the copyright holder can decide whether to take the issue to court. Companies and content are innocent until proven guilty.
With SOPA and PROTECT IP, the opposite would be true. Content providers would be able to go directly to a judge and request a court order that would force banks, advertising networks and other financial entities to stop dealing with any foreign website hosting copyrighted content. That content could be as little as a link in a forum post. Furthermore, any financial services which blockade websites of their own accord are afforded immunity, in effect giving those services the power to freely blockade any website they wish provided they “believe” the website is hosting copyrighted material. Service would only be restored after the website protested or notified the court that it had removed the content. Guilty until proven innocent.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the acts also give the Justice Department the power to order Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and search engines like Google to disallow access to infringing websites. In order to do this, ISPs would either have to modify the internet’s Domain Name System (DNS) – like stripping records from a phonebook – or employ technology not dissimilar to that used by the Great Firewall of China in order to sniff user traffic. Do we really want to see a Great Firewall of America?
Whereas the DMCA gets websites to remove only infringing files, these acts would remove entire websites from the internet. This would place huge demands on websites such as those for social networks or file storage, which rely on user-generated content. If one single piece of content infringes US copyright, that website’s revenue stream could be cut off, or worse, the entire website could lose all its US traffic – without so much as a warning beforehand. Never mind that playing around with DNS, a global system crucial to the operation of the internet, could have dire consequences and leave security holes open for malicious hackers.
The final damning action of these bills would be to make illegal any tools which could get around such censorship – that is, the same tools used by pro-democracy activists in oppressive regimes. The United States would undergo a polemical shift from a proponent of human rights to a country which bans tools of free speech.
Opposition to the legislation has not been quiet. On July 5th, 108 university professors wrote to Congress demonstrating that PROTECT IP is unconstitutional. Next, in November, nine prominent technology companies, including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo!, stated in a letter to Congress that the bills would threaten internet industries. Next, an open letter signed by such internet entrepreneurs as Sergey Brin of Google, Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Jack Dorsey of Twitter appeared as an advertisement in many prominent American newspapers, cautioning against rash changes. Most recently, 83 prominent internet engineers, including Vint Cerf who is one of the “fathers of the internet”, signed a letter stating their opposition to pretty much every facet of the legislation. A discussion is ongoing as to whether Wikipedia should “blackout” all of its English-language pages in protest.
Despite this substantial outcry by many of the internet’s most important people, neither the House nor the Senate have yet scrapped any of the legislation. After the engineers’ letter the committee debating SOPA did agree to postpone the vote until January while the technical elements of the bill were reconsidered, though over 20 technical amendments have already been voted down. In the Senate, the informal “hold” placed on PROTECT IP by the level-headed Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) six months ago is due to expire, meaning that the bill will proceed to be considered in January. Wyden has promised to use a filibuster to prevent it passing, but he and his colleagues are few against many.
The SOPA and PROTECT IP bills are badly thought-out solutions to real problems. The actual impact of piracy and copyright infringement on the content industry is debatable, but the issues exist, and something must be done. However, there are alternatives to censorship and authoritarianism. An alternative bill has been proposed: the Online Protection & Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN). Sponsored by Sen. Wyden and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), OPEN moves copyright issues out of the courts to the International Trade Commission, treating them as trade issues rather than criminal ones. OPEN also properly gives websites a chance to defend themselves before action is taken. Said Rep. Issa in a statement: “Butchering the Internet is not a way forward for America”.
SOPA and PROTECT IP should be a serious cause of concern to sensible people everywhere. The acts will harm free speech, needlessly damage economic growth, set a precedent for other countries, and even damage the foundations of the internet. Even if you are outside the US, you can take action: write to Congress, sign petitions, and, most importantly, raise awareness. Let’s avoid a dystopia.