Say No to SOPA
Issue № 340

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#section1

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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!#section5

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).

27 Reader Comments

  1. SOPA is the version of this legislation in the U.S. House. PROTECT-IP is the version in the Senate. It is just as bad and it may come up for a vote in the Senate soon. From a “posting”:https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/11/protect-ip-act-very-real-very-bad-call-now-block-it by the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

    bq. The PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) is the evil step-sister of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the much-criticized Internet blacklist bill introduced in the House last month. They’ve got a lot in common — both bills would allow the government and private rightsholders to censor the Internet for Americans, and both bills have faced strong opposition from regular citizens, business leaders, and public interest groups.
    In one way, though, PIPA is much worse: while SOPA is still in the House committee stage and has been the target of extraordinary public opposition, PIPA is already out of committee and poised for consideration of the full Senate. That means PIPA is a few dangerous steps further along in the process of becoming law. And with only a few weeks to go in this legislative session, the Senate may try to rush the bill through before the public has a chance to respond.

    So now is the time to “call your Senators”:http://americancensorship.org/ and urge them to oppose the PROTECT-IP Act if it comes up for a vote. ( “I have”:http://dltj.org/article/opposing-protect-ip-act/ ) And while you’re at it, “let Senator Wyden know that you want your name read aloud on the Senate floor or inserted into the Congressional Record”:http://stopcensorship.org/ as he vows to filibuster the act.

  2. “(“¦) Once a domain is blocked, nobody can access it, unless they’ve memorized the I.P. address.” Well, I’m afraid that is not true – anyone who has ever configured an Apache server knows that you can support many domains on a single IP address and that both the name server and the web server need to be configured properly in order for a domain to “work” and “point at the right place”, hence quite often (if not most of the times) knowing the IP address will give you nothing. The I.P. address for alistapart.com is 216.243.171.45 – try typing that into your address bar and visiting that “website”. I’m surprised Jeffrey Zeldman has made this mistake.

  3. But let me just add that otherwise I completely agree with this article. I am flabbergasted by the stupidity of those who want to pass this legislation – don’t they realise that they’re shooting themselves in the foot? That the copyrightes content, be it a film or music, they want to protect will consequently not be promoted via the medium of internet, thus their sales will plunge? On another note, how is it possible to “sponsor” law in the US (unless I don’t understand something here)?

  4. in spanish SOPA means soup. say no to soup! 😀

    seriously, when money is involved is amazing how fast borders between MY freedom and THEIR freedom appear. Internet used to be a dream world where everything was public, a huge library for everyone. Now it looks just like our world, full of boundaries, limitations, people fighting in the name of others’ freedom.

  5. In Turkish, _Sopa_ means ‘stick’ or ‘pole’, and is also used to mean a ‘beating’ or ‘roughing up’ 😀

    It makes perfect sense (in turkish) to use the acronym SOPA for a law that is a stick to rough up free thought

  6. bq. Well, I’m afraid that is not true — anyone who has ever configured an Apache server knows that you can support many domains on a single IP address and that both the name server and the web server need to be configured properly in order for a domain to “work” and “point at the right place”, hence quite often (if not most of the times) knowing the IP address will give you nothing. The I.P. address for alistapart.com is 216.243.171.45 — try typing that into your address bar and visiting that “website”. I’m surprised Jeffrey Zeldman has made this mistake.

    Knowing the IP of a server would be enough to create a local hosts entry which would then allow the name server to function properly. So, yes, memorizing the IP address would be enough for an individual to circumvent the domain blockage.

  7. While it would be rather expensive, if just Google and Facebook (let alone others) blocked their U.S. users for only a single day, there’s no way these laws would get passed. So much of our daily lives depends on these sorts of services (both directly and indirectly) that the impact of such a boycott would be huge.

    The loss of 1 day’s revenue is no small thing, but I expect it has to be less than the cost of policing everything. And after such a “trial run of the future”, the outcry would serve as a mind-blowing wake-up call to lawmakers and the public alike.

  8. “Knowing the IP of a server would be enough to create a local hosts entry which would then allow the name server to function properly. So, yes, memorizing the IP address would be enough for an individual to circumvent the domain blockage.” Well you could send a specially devised request to the server too; my point was, a non-technical person would not be able to just use the IP address. Maybe Jeffrey considered using “advanced” methods, my bad.

  9. bq. While it would be rather expensive, if just Google and Facebook (let alone others) blocked their U.S. users for only a single day, there’s no way these laws would get passed.

    I hope they are reading this. 🙂

  10. As dltj mentioned above, the Senate version, PROTECT-IP, is just as dangerous and may be closer to an immediate vote. http://www.americancensorship.org is putting together a call blitz this week; it’s important that we in the tech community (for both philosophical and practical reasons) get our voices heard *right now*.

    the_bz’s point is a good one too, and oddly enough not one I’ve really heard mentioned a lot in context with this — the entertainment industry might intend to curtail certain forms of piracy, but they’d also be cutting off their own word of mouth flow. Very counterproductive. I’m so perplexed that something this poorly thought out (and with such worrisome potential for abuse) has come to this point in our government.

  11. I am quite astounded that these measures are being proposed. If passed this would surely make the major search engines and social networks move to a country with a more liberal attitude? With the world still in the clutches of recession it seems ludicrous for a country to have to push away some of its most innovative (and profitable) organisations?

    That said, I think more could be done to protect copyright but this is just dumb. I just pray the UK government don’t copy the idea!

  12. One of the worst things about SOPA is that it completely undermines DNSSEC, which is a major initiative to provide authentication for DNS traffic, which historically has not been secured and can be leveraged by malware to do a variety of nasty things. SOPA would require US service providers to generate spurious DNS responses on demand (without requiring due process of law for those affected), meaning that any system designed to authenticate DNS cannot function.

  13. Guys, fellow yanks, you HAVE to fight this. REALLY DO contact your congress men, saying it’s absolute BS.

    I can’t believe this Goodlatte guy is STILL in the house. I used to work for the gaming industry, the guy wanted to ban online gambling, despite MILLIONS doing it, all because Vegas is taking a hit because users prefer to play slots online than the spend thousands going there.

  14. I seriously think the bill is funny. Blundering lawmaking idiots…bwahahaha!

    Ahhh, don’t fret my fellow internet savvies, this bill ain’t gonna pass. It’s just too silly. Lol!

  15. I’m pretty late on this topic and do not have many technical contributions to add to this discussion, but to me, it looks like SOPA and PIPA are capable of wiping out what’s left of the U.S. economy. It seems pretty counterintuitive for lawmakers to let either bill pass because I like to think most of the people that run our country are both educated and current, so I have some hope. It’s just scary to think that the ones with all the money and power are throwing down for a bill that’s implications they don’t even understand. It seems if people are given enough money, all reason goes out the window, and it is concerning when, not just my job is on the line, but the future of my country? I will definitely take action because I refuse to believe all those crazy books I read in school actually did predict the future.

  16. If this bill were to be translated into the physical world, it would be something like:

    -Enabling the government to shut down the entire interstate highway system because people use it to transport drugs.

    -Shutting down shipping ports because some shipping crates might contain counterfeit goods.

    -Cutting telephone lines because some people scam others over the phone.

    -Ending welfare/social security because a few people are cheating the system.

    -Closing a store because a few people steal merchandise.

    Absolutely ridiculous. I’m not pro-piracy by any stretch. But it seems like copyright holders should be more concerned with hunting the pirates rather than draining the sea on which they sail.

  17. Are we not already living with censorship anyway? As a parent, I for one am happy there is some regulation of contents in our society. But I fear government taking more “my right” to say what should and should not be filtered. I think that is the issue, not censorship.

    I’m for censorship, we’ve been living with it comfortably. Lets not misuse the energy and direct it towards making it so the people not government, have control over what gets filtered.

    As an IT professional I know it can be done if the government is involved. Nations can participate if called on. That is after all the purpose of government.

  18. What it really comes down to is spammers and the abuse they have done to the web over the years. Those that actually want to put quality content out there have to work so hard now to get a slice of the pie.
    What’s even sadder is the legislation may not quiet understand the potential effects of SOPA in the long run unlike us.

  19. The situation is even worse. The Internet have thousands of websites under VPS with single IPs and virtual domain name hosting set up. Blocking the root site by name can force outage of hundreds of thousands other ones.

    What we need if this Act is going to pass is an extraterritorial system of DNS root servers. Than we could make this crap technically void.

  20. This seems like the US deliberately shooting itself in the foot. Anything done to restrict access to the internet in the US is going to force yet more of the information industry to relocate abroad.

  21. That’s disastrous! With due respect to the law-makers looks like they have a very specific view of the modern Internet… What a fine solution to burden the search engines with a barely feasible censorship function!

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