A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

Say No to SOPA

A List Apart strongly opposes United States H.R.3261 AKA the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), an ill-conceived lobbyist-driven piece of legislation that is technically impossible to enforce, cripplingly burdensome to support, and would, without hyperbole, destroy the internet as we know it.

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We at ALA are not alone in our opposition to SOPA. Other opponents of the bill now before the U.S. House of Representatives include Google, Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla, Yahoo!, AOL, LinkedIn, eBay, Tumblr, Etsy, Reddit, Techdirt, Wikimedia Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The bill has its supporters, too, including Hollywood, media firms, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and their lobbyists, who have spent over $91 million to push this new law through.

Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), and Howard Berman (D-Calif.) brought SOPA to the U.S. House of Representatives on October 26, 2011. The bill expands the ability of U.S. law enforcement and copyright holders to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods.

Behind the law

On its surface, fighting piracy sounds like a good thing, especially if you’ve worked hard on a book, album, font, video, or other product and discovered it being illegally distributed free of charge on a shady website or server beyond the reach of U.S. law.

Speaking personally, every for-sale creative product I’ve helped develop in the past two decades has reached appreciative paying customers through authorized sales channels, from tiny Paypal-powered sites to mighty Amazon and chain stores. But pirated copies have also been readily available on law-flaunting websites, and there are always people who will download free stuff even when they know it’s wrong. I always think people who steal stuff weren’t my customers anyway, but not everyone can take that point of view, and it’s reasonable to wish there was some way to stop the illegal distribution of content.

Wishes are one thing, laws are another. If there is a way to stop piracy (and I think we’d have more luck legislating an end to adultery or overeating), SOPA is not it.

A broad and burning brush

SOPA approaches the piracy problem with a broad brush, lights that brush on fire, and soaks the whole internet in gasoline. If passed, SOPA will allow corporations to block the domains of websites that are “capable of” or “seem to encourage” copyright infringement. Once a domain is blocked, nobody can access it, unless they’ve memorized the I.P. address.

Nothing is more dangerous than tremendous power coupled with vague language. But SOPA’s definition is intentionally vague to give corporate lawyers maximum leeway in fighting for their clients’ interests at $450 an hour.

Under SOPA, an article on NPR’s website covering the copyright dispute between Shepard Fairey and the Associated Press could be seen as supporting copyright infringement, because the article includes a JPG of Fairey’s infringing “HOPE” poster as part of its news coverage, or because the article refers passingly to Fairey’s “fair use” defense. Under SOPA, the AP could legally block the entire NPR website in response.

But it doesn’t stop there, because this is the internet, and the internet is about connections.

Say you blog about the NPR story and include a screen capture. Under SOPA, your website could be blocked. If your blog is a subdomain of Tumblr or WordPress, all of Tumblr or WordPress could also be blocked.

Maybe you just post a link to the story on your Facebook wall. Under SOPA, all of Facebook can be blocked.  To avoid this fate, Facebook would be responsible for policing the copyright status of every piece of content its users post.

Servers and search engines, too

Ever used a search engine? Google and Bing would have indexed the NPR story and probably included the artwork. (That’s what search engines do.) Therefore Google and Bing could be shut down. To avoid being shut down, Google and Bing would be responsible for policing the copyright ownership of every piece of content they index.

Same thing with hosting companies and Internet Service Providers. If there’s a copyrighted image on an ISP’s server or in the cloud, the server and cloud service must go away, along with all the innocent content also stored on that server or cloud service. To stay online, ISPs of every stripe will be responsible for policing the copyright status of every piece of content they store. Hosting is a tough game. Most hosting companies barely break even, and have a tough enough job maintaining uptime. Who will pay hosting companies to hire content police, and who will train them?

And let’s not forget the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. That’s got to be full of copyright violations. Better to be on the safe side. Let’s just shut it down, and Wikipedia with it (because maybe one file in the Wikipedia commons is arguably copyright protected).

Lobbyists want this

Anyone with five minutes’ experience of how the internet actually works will understand why SOPA is technically unfeasible, economically burdensome, and a ball gag in the mouth of free speech. No company that stores or publishes internet content can police all that content all the time. SOPA is a job and freedom ender.

U.S. legislators are not internet experts, but they know the side on which their bread gets buttered and they are in thrall to powerful lobbyists, as anyone not on peyote knows. And lobbyists have thrown $91 million at this issue so far, grotesquely outspending citizens and internet companies.

What Big Money wants, Big Money tends to get, even when its experts testifying at the U.S. House of Representatives admit they don’t know what they’re talking about, as covered by Fortune, of all publications:

Internet companies worry that they could be held liable for the actions of people outside their control. Under the bill, Yahoo, for example, could be held liable if someone posted a copyrighted picture to that company’s Flickr site. And Google and other search engines would in effect be responsible for the actions of basically everyone on the Internet.But logic either doesn’t seem to matter much to SOPA sponsor Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and his 21 cosponsors, or else they simply can’t get their minds around the problem. Opponents of the bill have noted that it could disrupt the domain-name system—the Internet’s basic technical underpinning. But when witnesses who support the bill were asked about that issue, they said they were not qualified to speak to the technical aspects of it, even as they insisted that SOPA would present no such problem.And in a bit of delicious symbolism, the committee’s streaming video of the hearing basically didn’t work—Why the House is stacking the deck on Internet piracyFortune

Act now!

American Censorship Day, one of several campaigns to stop SOPA, has come and gone, but you can still take action:

We urge everyone reading this to take action today. Only an overwhelming show of solidarity gives us a chance of defeating this poorly written, dangerous bill.

For more information, visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Lifehacker, and read the bill for yourself (PDF).

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