If you're familiar with SOPA (the "Stop Online Piracy Act") or its Senate companion, PIPA, you know it's controversial, at best. There's a lot more potentially wrong with this legislation than you might have considered.
It is easily the most dangerous and ill-conceived attempt to regulate the Internet, and your use of it, ever proposed by the US government. And no, living in another country doesn't make you immune. That just makes you a potential target.
SOPA and PIPA are bills currently pending before the US Congress. Their stated goals are simple: Stop piracy and the sale of counterfeit goods online. Wonderful! Excellent goals. But how do they propose to do that?
Therein lies the rub.
Here's how they'd work: If the US Department of Justice, or any US-based copyright holder, accused a site of "encouraging or facilitating" piracy, the government could:
As the bills are currently written, this process could be applied only to sites outside the US. I don't believe that would remain the case for long if the bills pass. Whether I'm right on that or not, this legislation is a disaster in the making.
"What Does 'Encouraging or Facilitating' Mean?"
Good question. Does it mean sites that actively host pirated files, or that sell counterfeit physical products? Sites that allow their members to use a separate section for "sharing" warez? Or does it mean sites that link to those products directly? Or sites that link to legitimate content on sites that are deemed to be "rogue?" Maybe sites that allow their members to speak out in favor of piracy?
What about social networking sites, blogs, or forums? If one post, tweet, or update in such a site links to stolen products, or advocates unauthorized distribution of copyrighted products, is the site "encouraging or facilitating" piracy?
You may not think so, but what if it's your product? You're going to want that link removed. To you, it seems as though the site itself, and not just the user, is helping people steal from you.
And if you're a big company, with a lot of intellectual property that is regularly the target of these digital leeches? Say, a movie studio or recording company? Are you going to monitor those sites and look for every instance of this stuff that comes up, or are you going to want the site owner to actively monitor every post, in order to protect your IP rights?
Think about that.
Before I continue, I should mention that I make my living from intellectual property which I create, or to which I buy the rights. Mine is not a big company, certainly, but it affects my income in the same ways, if on a different scale. You would think I'd be in favor of something like this.
I am not.
Going after pirates this way is like using a flamethrower to get fleas off your dog.
"It Won't Accomplish The Goal"
First things first: The procedures outlined in this bill will not stop piracy. Period. Getting around a domain-based blacklist is child's play for anyone with any experience. And if this legislation passes, those people will cheerfully set to the task of creating IP-based shadow networks and tools an average person can use to play in their private sandboxes.
Pirates won't care if the law forbids it.
If they did, they wouldn't be pirates.
If the bills pass with requirements that ISPs block on both domain names and IP addresses, they'd require ISPs to look at every packet sent from your computer in order to comply.
Yep. They'd know every site you visited and every site referenced in every email, post, tweet or update you sent out into the world. And they'd have the option of stopping any or all of it, if you pointed to anything "forbidden."
A lot of our Congressional representatives are saying they won't back the bills if they include IP-based blocking. Good thing, too, as it's easy to rotate through IP addresses.
Not only will the proposed systems not stop piracy, they may encourage more of it. Aggressive prohibition has almost always resulted in the forbidden being seen as heroic or rebellious. This ends up making the thieves look somehow "romantic," and adding to the appeal.
Good plan. Let's turn a bunch of script kiddies and warez hosts into modern-day Robin Hoods.
Yeah. That'll work. Gimme some.
And I'd like to buy that bridge you had for sale, too.
"But It Can't Hurt, Right?"
Wrong again, oh Mighty Congressperson!
According to a number of people far more technically clued than I, enacting these procedures poses a serious threat to the security of the domain name system. There is an article on Wikipedia which you can check out tomorrow (after they lift the blackout), which explains this in more detail. Just type SOPA into the search box.
Suffice to say, even US government agencies are saying the technical result of this could be a disaster of global proportions.
Not often you hear that phrase used in a "yes, it really would" kind of way, is it?
I'll leave the technical stuff to be explained by the Geek Pantheon. They have the knowledge needed to make that clear to us mere mortals. Let's look at the direct impact, based on what marketers look at: How do human beings react in a given circumstance?
"What Does This Mean to Me?"
If you're not a pirate, this stuff shouldn't be a problem. Right?
Let's say you run a discussion forum. It wouldn't matter how many posts or pages your forum contained. If a copyright holder could make the case that your site was "encouraging or facilitating" piracy or counterfeiting of products, you could potentially be blocked from the view of most US residents.
The exceptions would be the ones with the technical savvy to circumvent the blocks, which would be illegal under the bills as currently written. Hardly the lion's share of visitors in most cases.
The same could happen to blogs, social networking sites, photo and video sharing sites, shareware libraries, and any other online system that allowed for user-posted content.
Yes, those sites could probably be removed from the blocklist, if they had the resources to fight it and could show they actively worked to keep that stuff out. But that's all after having been blocked, removed from US-based search engines, and lost access to their payment processing.
Problem 1: Most site operators don't have the resources (financial, emotional, or endurance) to go up against a federal action. And most interactive sites wouldn't survive that kind of down-time. Whatever portion of their market was blocked from visiting would likely end up being lost for good.
That alone would kill many sites. And many more would simply close up shop, unwilling or unable to submit to the hassles of the fight.
Problem 2: Payment processors would not, under this legislation, be required to re-accept sites which had been blacklisted. Anyone who's dealt with these folks knows, they very likely would not allow the operators to re-active their accounts, even after having been cleared.
It wouldn't be surprising to see payment processors creating new categories of sites they wouldn't accept. The main one being "Sites which allow posting of user-generated content."
Problem 3: Unless the blacklist is operated in the same way as spam-fighting DNSBLs (updated and checked from a central database using a software daemon), it's easy to imagine sites staying on those local lists forever, even once the government removed the mandate for blocking them.
A mistaken listing would be a death sentence for most sites. And a reprieve wouldn't matter. You'd still be dead.
“And What If You Use Sites That Accept User-Generated Content?”
If one of them is listed, it's simple: You're out of luck.
Doesn't take a lot of explanation to make that concept clear.
Here's where it gets really nasty, though. What will sites that currently allow users to post do in order to prevent these problems?
Well, many of them will go to harsh moderation policies, allowing posts and comments only from known and trusted players. Random visitors won't be allowed to leave their insights, ask questions, or poke holes in flawed arguments.
Many blogs will simply turn off the ability to comment at all. Photo and video sites will probably require much stricter registration procedures, if they don't just shut down entirely.
And a ton of people will just decide that it's not worth the effort of building a site if it can be shut down over the careless or malicious actions of a single user.
The trend will be toward an ever more "Read-Only" web.
Sure, sites like Facebook and Twitter will probably not get shut down over a few morons who insist on posting links to pirated software. But smaller sites? Too risky.
So, we'd have a ton of legitimate smaller sites shut down. The value they provide to their visitors would be lost, along with the income they create for their operators. And we'd pretty much establish the existing big social networking sites as the lone operators in their space.
Yeah. Those sound like GREAT ideas! Let's do it!
Who needs job creation or innovation? We've got Facebook!
"A Very Big Crater"
Some Americans may think this isn't important, because they only use US-based sites. There are a few problems with that thinking.
The first is believing the US government won't extend these provisions to sites within our borders. Such a change might eventually be ruled unconstitutional, but only after a lot of damage had been done.
The second is ignoring the contribution to these types of sites made by people from other countries. That is just stupid. Americans don't have a monopoly on anything but being American.
Which brings us to the biggest problem with this legislation: To slightly more than 95% of the world's population, WE are the "foreigners."
Does anyone really think that if we start blocking offshore sites arbitrarily, other countries won't follow suit?
The thing that makes the Internet work is that, so far, it has largely been exempt from the geographical boundaries of "realspace." Sure, there are exceptions. Import and currency regulation, and anomalies like the Great Firewall of China. Still, for the most part, people "here" can speak with people "there" without a huge amount of interference.
It works because it's a huge global "commons." As soon as we start parceling it into local fiefdoms, the advantages we all currently enjoy are gone.
If we start this ball rolling downhill, Sisyphus wouldn't touch the job of pushing it back up again.
How many of the leaders of the world's 196 countries would be likely to have their own views about what is and is not appropriate within their borders? How many of them would love to block out inconvenient ideas or media channels? Or to protect their own markets from digital incursion by other countries?
As soon as we get into that, the notion that this is a copyright issue goes out the window. It's pure politics, and the net is broken. And that leads to the next problem.
We're already seeing attacks from one country into another via the Internet. When it becomes acceptable to place political ideologies above the virtual environment, that is going to escalate. And the attacks won't all come from state-level players. We're going to see factions of all kinds unleashing the already existing weapons out there on whoever has stoked their wrath.
Much of that is going to happen anyway. As things are now, we have the spirit of cooperation in the international community to help keep it to a relative minimum. If we start playing this game, though, that cooperation could vanish as quickly as the smile on the face of a child who's just been told "No."
"But Wait... There's MORE!"
If this legislation passes, I don't see any reason to believe other countries won't follow suit. And while there's no guarantee that regionalization and factional attacks would follow, I consider them likely. The only serious question in my mind is how bad they'd get.
It takes bureaucracies to enforce such things. Anyone who's even looked crosswise at a history book knows that bureaucracies don't readily give up the ghost, once established.
They grow, and they look for more and more authority.
One place they might look for it is through ways to "fix" the technical problems I mentioned earlier. Most notably, the DNS security issues. If different countries start adopting different protocols for such things, the whole system starts to unravel.
"Wow. What a Mess!"
Maybe. A lot of this could be less severe than I think. Some of it might not happen at all. But some of it is guaranteed, and there's no benefit to anyone in it. Not even the big media companies that are pushing for it so hard.
After all, we know how badly their crystal balls failed them on the music front, eh? (Can you say "Sony Rootkit?" I knew you could.)
So, what can you do about it?
If you live in the US, go to: http://www.contactingthecongress.org/
Select your state, enter your zip code, and click "Submit it." You'll be shown a page with contact details for your Representative and both Senators. You can email them from those forms. Or, better yet, you can call their offices.
Best of all is to type up a brief, polite letter telling them you want them to oppose these bills. Postal mail still counts for more than emails or phone calls, but every bit helps.
Make it clear that you don't believe that the bill would do anything to stop piracy, that it would stifle free speech, cost tens of thousands of jobs here and abroad, and could seriously damage the basic security and infrastructure of the net in ways that might never be able to be fixed.
Make sure to include your name and address (including zip code), so they know you're a constituent.
When contacting your Representative, refer to SOPA (HR 3621). For your Senators, mention PIPA (S.968).
If you live outside the US, you can sign an international petition, which you can find at:
Don't leave this up to someone else. If everyone does that, nothing will get done. You can drop your Representative and Senators a note via email in just a few minutes. Phone calls or a letter won't take much longer. And there's a lot at stake.
Go. You've been kind to read this far, but those emails, phone calls and letters are more important. And please, forward this link to anyone you feel might do something about the problem.
Your comments are welcomed. You can use the email address below to contact me.