Monday, December 19, 2011

Stop SOPA!!!

I think we should upgrade the old saying to this...three things are certain in life:
1. death
2. taxes
3. you cannot trust Congress

I'm still trying to sort out the details of both sides of this argument, but this seems like a great example of point #3.  First, some background:

Introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and co-sponsored by representatives from both parties (the bill has a total of 31 co-sponsors!), the Stop Online Piracy Act purports to stop "foreign online criminals from stealing and selling America's intellectual property and keeping the profits for themselves."

According to Rep. Smith's website, "IP theft costs the U.S. economy more than $100 billion annually and results in the loss of thousands of American jobs. The Stop Online Piracy Act specifically targets foreign websites primarily dedicated to illegal activity or foreign websites that market themselves as such. The bill ensures that profits from America's innovations go to American innovators."

But opponents of the bill suggest it is unlikely to do what it is designed to do — and highly likely to result in troubling unintended consequences. Put simply, the bill would enable the U.S. government to block Internet content for very specious reasons. Sites that "enable or facilitate" copyright infringement could be shut down just for that enabling or facilitating function. In other words, a site like YouTube could be shut down just because one of its users posted content that infringes copyright laws. As critics have pointed out, that's akin to punishing a car company because a car user crashed his vehicle into another person's vehicle.

In other words, to critics of the bill, SOPA is not about piracy — it's about censorship. After all, at its core, piracy is a service problem — and censoring websites like YouTube isn't likely to stop piraters, who are notoriously adept at finding a way to peddle copyrighted material no matter what the restrictions. As this Cynical Brit who has introduced hundreds of thousands of viewers to the dangers of SOPA put it, the way to beat piraters is to provide better service than they do — to make it a better consumer experience to legally view or use copyrighted material than to illegally view or use copyrighted material.

This seems like one of those things that appears to be legit and noble on the surface, but whether due to ignorance or maliciousness, there are deeper issues at stake.  Since this is one of those times where politics and technology merge, I thought I'd seek out some answers from the geeks.  They jumped all over it:

What happens when you combine an overzealous drive to fight Internet piracy, with elected representatives who don't know the difference between DNS, IM, and MP3? You get SOPA--draconian legislation that far exceeds its intended scope, and threatens the Constitutional rights of law abiding citizens. And it may just pass.

An open letter to Congress written by luminaries of the Internet, such as Vint Cerf--co-designer of TCP/IP, and Robert W. Taylor--founder of ARPAnet among others, implores Congress to back off and squash both SOPA, and its sibling PIPA legislation. The letter states, "If enacted, either of these bills will create an environment of tremendous fear and uncertainty for technological innovation, and seriously harm the credibility of the United States in its role as a steward of key Internet infrastructure."

The letter goes on to ominously caution Congress. "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." ...

You only really need to know one thing about SOPA to realize that it's bad legislation that must be stopped: it is supported (and probably written) by the RIAA and MPAA. These organizations are like crotchety old men yelling at the neighbor kids to get off their lawn. But, in this case their "lawn" is the Internet, and instead of "yelling" they're threatening to fill it with landmines that effectively make it useless.

It is almost 2012. It has been nearly 30 years since services like Prodigy and America Online introduced the mainstream world to the Internet. It has been almost 20 years since Netscape came on the scene, and the Web took the world by storm. It is no longer tolerable for an elected representative to be clueless about how the Internet works. It's just not acceptable.

If the bill passes, it could have devastating, cascading consequences that ripple across the Internet and affect the freedom and civil liberties of every citizen of the United States. It seems our current elected representatives may just be dumb and/or crazy enough to pass it, though—so speak up and let your representative and senators know what you think of SOPA.

Stealing is wrong and we accept that on faith. We all believe our artists and creative professionals (and the suits who follow them around with their hands out) deserve to get paid for their work. Heck, I make my living producing content. I like to be able to pay my bills as much as the next guy.

Unfortunately, our elected officials are once again allowing themselves to be led around by their collective noses by the lobbying organizations known as the RIAA and the MPAA. These lobbyists have no problem disrupting the Internet for their own gain, whether or not their efforts will damage our economy, cause jobs to be lost, or destroy one of America's greatest assets.

It's interesting when you think about it. The Internet was designed to route around nuclear warfare, but it's almost defenseless against lawyers and lobbyists.

Here's where SOPA goes wrong.

SOPA wants to give, well, pretty much anyone with a law degree the right to shut down Web sites and domains. SOPA has some nasty teeth. First, according to the EFF, it allows individual companies to force payment processors (think PayPal or VISA) to stop paying any site that might be considered to be engaging in, enabling, or facilitating any form of copyright infringement.

Let's first look at how this might impact you. What cloud-based services do you use? Gmail? Dropbox? Amazon's music sharing service? What about eBay? What about Facebook? Or perhaps you simply host your corporate email at an Exchange hosting provider, like I do.

They go into some great examples of services that might be affected by this, including Gmail or Google Docs, Dropbox, Microsoft Exchange email, Facebook, and anything else hosted on the Internet.

You are trying to control something — that you don't even understand — that should not be controlled by any government.

You are attempting to pass a bill that will accomplish something that only you have been able to do — unite Democrats and Republicans against your asinine behavior.

Not to mention you are overlooking what could be your biggest mistake in attempting to pass this law — forgetting about your 'Anonymous' friends, who, when I spoke to them were not very happy about your recent endeavours.

Any bill that is compared to censorship laws in China and Iran, should not even be considered.

I won't knock the concept, it is correct, people should not pirate movies and music, but the way you are attempting to fix it, will cause far more damage than the made-up $100 billion in losses the economy takes from IP theft — which is impossible to calculate.

The very people (or funders in the case of SOPA creator Lamar Smith, who has been getting consistent donations from tv/film/music industry over the last ten years) you are trying to protect — companies like Sony and Universal — have been caught pirating movies.

And if you think this bill will stop The Pirate Bay, your sadly mistaken. Congress has this amazing ability to overestimate its power. This isn't something that you can just pepper spray. Oops.

Go back, learn about the Internet and how it works, and do something that you don't normally do — think with your head, not with your pocket, and create a bill that won't make Occupy more than just a nuisance.

The government has begun seizing domain names of so-called rogue sites. And the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would lead to even more aggressive copyright enforcement efforts. These tactics threaten to undermine US leadership of the Internet and could endanger the conensus-driven process that has served its development for so long. It could also harm US companies competing overseas. ...

Because the Internet was originally developed in the United States with federal money, the US government enjoys disproportionate influence over Internet governance. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is based in the United States, as are the majority of the DNS root servers and the registries for popular top-level domains like ".com" and ".org." While there has been regular grumbling about this dominance, the US government's relatively hands-off approach has served the Internet pretty well and has helped dissuade other nations from challenging the status quo (other governments have gained some modest additional power at ICANN).

But that's likely to change if the US government continues throwing its weight around. For example, we've covered the case of Rojadirecta, a site that had its .com domain seized by American officials despite the fact that its operations had been found legal by a Spanish court. Whatever short-run benefits this policy might have from an anti-piracy perspective, the long-run consequences are obvious: non-Americans will be more reluctant to register .com or .org websites. And eventually, foreign governments will object even more strongly to the US control of key DNS systems.

And on and on.  In my experience, most of these techie websites have a definite liberal slant, which is all the more reason to be concerned.

Like I said, this issue is pretty new to me, so I'm not 100% solid on this, but from what I've read so far the bottom line appears to be that the US government is trying to give itself the authority to simply shut down any website they consider to be using 'piracy' (never mind the fact that the RIAA and MPAA have proven themselves to be ridiculously overreaching and vicious legal opponents to those caught in their crosshairs in the past, and never mind that the people pushing this legislation seem to have received some rather large sums of money from these two lobbyist groups).  Consider how damaging it would be not only to those companies, but to all the users of those companies.  Half a dozen of the biggest Internet companies probably touch a couple billion people around the world on a daily basis.  What happens if is found to be hosting 'pirated' software and shut down?  Facebook's 750 million daily users are more than double the entire population of the US, so ripping that website down could cause riots.  Even if subsequent investigations proved these companies were on the up and up and allowed to resume business, the hit to their bottom line could be incalculable.  And if something like that happened, it would be the perfect argument for removing the keys to the Internet from US control and handing it over to the UN.  There's no win in this situation.

Sure, we don't want Internet piracy.  It harms the artists and content producers, and it supports an illegal black market all around the world.  But there have got to be other ways to deal with it that don't include clear and dangerous curtailing of freedoms, and the undermining of US technical leadership in the world.

I'll post more as I learn more, but it seems to me that this would be a good time to contact your elected representatives and encourage them to oppose this legislation in its current form, and to take a much more sane look at the piracy problem.  Mainly, in a way that wouldn't destroy the freedom and innovation of the Internet.

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