SOPA supporters face a mountain of opposition
With President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law last week, it should serve as a reminder that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is the next battle that civil liberties and privacy advocates should turn our attention to. Some are already taking the fight over this issue straight to SOPA supporters. For example, Reddit users launched a campaign against GoDaddy, which caused the Internet hosting firm to switch its position to opposition of SOPA. Similarly, they also went after Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), a popular figure in the conservative movement, causing problems for his staff and, potentially, his re-election campaign.
Why is there such a backlash against this legislation? Because it promotes Internet censorship and elimates due process for website owners and operators. Jerry Brito explained the problems with SOPA at Time back in November:
For the content industry—including Hollywood and the recording industry—SOPA and PROTECT IP are necessary to fight foreign copyright infringers that usually stand outside the reach of U.S. law. Domestic domains, such as those ending in .com or .net, can already be seized by the government with a court order. However, U.S. authorities don’t have the power to seize foreign domains, and such domains are often used by sites that illegally stream movies and sports or offer music for free downloads.
SOPA and PROTECT IP allow the government to target foreign sites by essentially disappearing them. How the bills accomplish the disappearing act is among the issues that rankle the Internet companies.
The Domain Name System (DNS) is what translates easy-to-remember website names, like TIME.com, to their true numerical Internet addresses, like 22.214.171.124. When you type in a website name, your computer queries a DNS server to get the numerical address. Most consumers use a DNS server provided by their ISP, though some use third-party servers like the Google Public DNS.
SOPA and PROTECT IP would allow prosecutors to get a court order declaring a foreign site as infringing, and the order could then be used to require DNS service providers to block the allegedly infringing sites. This means they will essentially be required to keep a blacklist of rogue foreign sites, and when a user tries to get the numerical address for a blacklisted site, the server would have to return either nothing or an error page. As far as the user is concerned, the site will have disappeared.
At a moment when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is urging world governments to keep their hands off the Internet, creating a blacklist would send the wrong message. And not just to China or Iran, which already engage in DNS filtering, but to liberal democracies that might want to block information they find naughty. Imagine if the U.K. created a blacklist of American newspapers that its courts found violated celebrities’ privacy? Or what if France blocked American sites it believed contained hate speech? We forget, but those countries don’t have a First Amendment.
The result could be a virtually broken Internet where some sites exist for half the world and not for the other. The alternative is to leave the DNS alone and focus (as the bills also do) on going after the cash flow of rogue websites. As frustrating as it must be for the content owners who are getting ripped off, there are some cures worse than the disease.
Brito also notes that “blacklisting and disappearing sites will likely do little to stop committed pirates. For one thing, a blacklisted site will still exist and will still be accessible from its numerical address.”
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has also put out an informative video featuring Julian Sanchez on what SOPA would mean to the Internet:
So why is SOPA advancing when there are so many problems and so much opposition? Part of the problem is that many members of Congress just don’t understand the issues at hand like many of us that spend a lot of time on the Internet or around technology. There an generation gap that we have to bridge and, unfortunately, we don’t have the lobbying power that many of the industries pushing SOPA do.
It’s likely that SOPA will come up for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee at some point this month. If you’re concerned about SOPA, you should contact each of the members on the committee as well as your representatives and ask them to vote against it.