SOPA

An aside with my thoughts on SOPA.

The Stop Online Privacy act has been garnering a lot of attention in the tech community and rightfully so.  If it passes, it has the opportunity to fracture the internet as we know it in the U.S.  Essentially, the act is meant to allow rights holders the ability to call out copyright infringing sites and provide a process that lets authorities shut the sites down.

A little bit of history:

Many people may have seen cease and desist letters before come to them from the MPAA and RIAA in the past threatening legal action for illegally shared content.  Many times, these letters went to people that did not do anything illegal other than being a service provider to the real culprits (parents get letters for teenagers that don’t know any better).  These threats did occasionally reach court in some cases, where the rights holders wanted to make an example of those that were “stealing content”.  The problem was, it punished those that were not the real criminals, and didn’t do anything to stop the root problem.

Eventually ISPs did not want to see their customers sued for all the money that they could otherwise be making off of them themselves.  ISPs started to just cut off access if the rights holders contacted them, usually with a three strikes and you’re out deal.  Again, this didn’t address the root cause and now we have the problem of users being cut off from a multitude of services (least of which a form of speech), without a trial.

We’ve already been through two rounds of rights holders trying to protect their property without addressing the root cause and punishing those in the line of fire blindly.  That is the inherent issue that many have with SOPA.  The bill is not detailed enough to prevent rights holders from crying wolf yet again against those that may not be the root problem.  In addition, it is cutting off access at the very roots of the internet itself.

The provisions allow authorities to seize website addresses at the DNS level.  Think of DNS as the phonebook of the internet.  Everything on the internet, just like the phone system is based on a system of numbers, in this case IP numbers.  DNS maps these numbers to the friendly www urls you type into your browser.  So, say a rights holder reports a website to the authorities, the authorities will then (if they agree), reach out into all the phonebooks in the US and strike that person from the record.  You will not be allowed to reach that site and instead will be sent to a government run seizure page.

There are more than a few flaws in this bill.  For one, how are we going to decide if a site should be shut down.  Will the site owner, paying money for internet access, for electricity and equipment, and working long hours to set up complicated systems be given the right to a fair trial?  Not under the current provisions, an appointed enforcement coordinator will make the determination.  This enforcement coordinator will not be an elected official, or a judicial committee, they will be government assigned “experts” as deemed by the Secretary of State and Secretary of Commerce.  Essentially, whoever is the best deemed candidate that applies for the job, and how many qualified techies are going to chose a government position such as this over opportunities in the private sector?

The most important flaw is that it won’t make much of a difference.  This act will not go after the actual machines running these sites, even if they were truly illegal.  Heck they don’t even pull them off the internet, you will still be able to reach them if you know the IP address, or even easier, if the actual criminals will simply set up shop outside of the US, set up their own DNS servers, and spread by word of mouth.  I believe I read in a Wired article before that much of the hacker underground already operates their own independent sub-internet by this very method.  Even if the criminals don’t, many large companies that are against SOPA could chose to be the champions of freedom by setting up shop themselves outside of the US and doing the same legitimately.  Google is one of the supporters against SOPA and they already host free DNS services.  This very well could fracture the internet.  What once was a global open market and forum, a place where you could easily share your thoughts will start to become a bunch of walled gardens.  Walls with gaping holes that you can get through if you know your stuff.

There are many ways to get around anything that the big rights holding companies could hope to accomplish with this Act, and many things that this could break for legitimate companies, site owners, and end users.

I’m no expert on the bill (I’ll admin I’ve skimmed it), and of course if it does pass, many of people worries may never come to pass, but it opens up a lot of risk without much getting accomplished as I understand it.  These are my thoughts and opinions and I reserve the right to change my mind and/or be swayed otherwise.

SOPA can kill everyone’s SOAP Box

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