As this article is being written on January 18, many high-profile web sites have gone
"black" in order to protest proposed legislation in the US that would,
ostensibly, combat online "piracy". Lots of different sites are
participating, from Wikipedia and Google to sites that cater to more
technical audiences like Reddit and Bruce Schneier's security blog. The
intent is to raise the profile of the two related pieces of legislation
with the hope
that users (both technical and less so) will recognize the threat to a
"free and open
internet" that the laws represent.
As seems to commonly be the case—at least in the US—the
proposals have been given names that don't accurately reflect their scope.
The "Stop Online Piracy Act" (SOPA) is the House of Representatives'
entrant, while the Senate bill is called the "Protect Intellectual Property
Act" (PIPA). Both are strongly backed by the content industries who make
unsubstantiated claims about the financial and job losses caused by online
piracy—and are undoubtedly pouring lots of money into lobbying for their
passage. But, many internet sites and luminaries are extremely wary of the
bills' contents because they could "break the internet".
The law of "unintended consequences" is often present in internet-targeted
legislation, but it's a little hard to see some of the consequences from
SOPA/PIPA as being unintended—at least by some of their proponents.
The content industry has found it expensive and difficult to combat the
copyright infringement of its works under the existing laws, and is always
looking for a way to make others responsible for enforcement. SOPA/PIPA
are just the latest salvo in that effort.
The biggest technical problem with the legislation is that it tries to
fundamentally alter how the domain name system (DNS) works, so that
"rogue" sites that carry infringing content—or even links to
infringing content—can be "banished" from the internet. As pointed
out by Paul Vixie, though, all of the technical measures that SOPA/PIPA
want to use to blacklist these supposedly rogue sites won't do so. In
addition, implementing these "features" will just increase the load on DNS
servers as clients try to route around the censorship.
The argument from proponents is that many of the sites that
they would like to shut down are foreign-owned, and thus are impossible to
affect via US law. Aside from the irony of using US
legislation to somehow do the impossible, mandating that US companies
blacklist web sites via DNS or any other method is only likely to result in
fragmenting the infrastructure of the internet. As an open
letter from 83 internet inventors and engineers to the US Congress in
December put it:
The US government has regularly claimed that it supports a free and open
Internet, both domestically and abroad. We cannot have a free and open
Internet unless its naming and routing systems sit above the political
concerns and objectives of any one government or industry. To date, the
leading role the US has played in this infrastructure has been fairly
uncontroversial because America is seen as a trustworthy arbiter and a
neutral bastion of free expression. If the US begins to use its central
position in the network for censorship that advances its political and
economic agenda, the consequences will be far-reaching and destructive.
The bills would mandate that US companies enforce the blacklist, and
provide penalties if a service allows users to circumvent the list. Not
only does that put a large burden on ISPs, web application providers,
internet startups, and others, it also adds a large uncertainty factor by
the terms used. Rather than focusing strictly on sites that infringe
copyrights (for which there are plenty of laws already available), these
bills would be enforced against sites that are "enabling or facilitating"
infringement (at least in SOPA). That kind of ambiguity leaves the door open to all sorts of
Those penalties can be severe. One of the actions that a copyright holder
could take against a site deemed to have violated these acts is to get a
court order that requires payment sites and advertising networks to cut the
site off. So, a site that "facilitates" infringement (which could easily
be applied to almost any site on the internet) could suddenly find itself
cut off from its funding sources—or in court to show why it shouldn't
be. For larger, well-established sites and service providers, that will be
an expensive annoyance, but for smaller fish (including startups and sites
like LWN) it could
the company out of business.
Proponents of these laws downplay the potential for widespread
applicability, explaining that they are targeted at the "worst of the
worst" offenders. But, as we have seen with almost any law
(internet-focused or not), they is almost always some kind of overreach.
Once these (or similar) laws are on the books, the content industries will
be pushing the envelope. We've seen this overreach with the DMCA, anti-"hacking" laws,
the PATRIOT act, and more. Meanwhile, the rest of the world (along with much
of the US) will just find ways to route around the blockades.
Certainly copyright infringement is a problem. Copyright is, after all,
the tool that the free software community uses to enforce its licenses.
The question is how big of a problem infringement really is, and what the right
solution is. The content industries would have us believe that
infringement is stealing food from the mouths of babes—while often
record profits. It's not at all clear that passing more and more laws will
"fix" the problem.
The only real way to completely prevent digital copyright infringement is
to curtail general purpose computing (and networking) in ways that would be
drastically detrimental to the worldwide economy (not to mention little
things like personal freedom). Cory Doctorow recently
spoke about the likelihood of an upcoming war against
general-purpose computing. One could argue that we have already lost some
battles in that war (e.g. DMCA) and SOPA/PIPA are yet another. Hopefully,
the efforts of the high-profile sites protesting this legislation will
start to wake people up about what kinds of things the content industries
and their "pet" legislators are trying to do. If not, we will likely see
even more draconian legislation down the road.
For readers wanting to know more,
Techdirt's Mike Masnick has two analyses of
that are well worth a read.
to post comments)