Ill-Defined Bills Put Enforcement Burden on Large, Small Websites

 
 
By Fahmida Y. Rashid  |  Posted 2012-01-18
 
 
 

SOPA, PIPA Still Threaten Internet Operations Even Without DNS Filtering


Despite recent changes to anti-online piracy bills under consideration in Congress, opponents still say the bills would make it impossible for Websites to block offending domains and won't actually stop piracy.

Stop Online Piracy Act is an anti-piracy bill currently under debate before the House Judiciary Committee. The bill was written to target Websites run by overseas operators that sell or distribute pirated and counterfeited products, which includes everything from Hollywood movies to leather handbags.

Criticism of the bills' provisions continued even as a number of prominent Websites, including the Wikipedia free online encyclopedia, shut down for 24 hours on Jan. 18 to protest the proposed legislation.
 

If the committee approves the bill, it will move to the full House of Representatives for debate and a vote. The Senate's Senate Judiciary Committee has already unanimously approved a similar version of the bill called the Protect IP Act (PIPA). This bill  is expected to reach the Senate floor for full debate and vote sometime next week, possibly as soon as Jan. 24.

Supporters, which include the music recording and movie industries, several software companies and pharmaceutical firms, claim the bill would give copyright holders a way to shut down counterfeiting sites which cost them billions of dollars in losses each year. Major technology firms, civil liberties groups and security experts are bitterly opposed to the bill, claiming it is a form of censorship that bypasses due process and would interfere with fundamental Internet operations.

Late last week, SOPA's sponsor and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) backed down and agreed to temporarily remove the provisions mandating Domain Name System blocking of Websites found in violation of the law. The bill, if passed, would have allowed copyright holders to obtain a court order to force Internet service providers to modify the offending Website's Domain Name System record to prevent customers from being able to reach the sites.

Smith claimed he was removing DNS filtering in order to proceed with the bill while the committee examined the technical implications of modifying DNS. The committee had already defeated an amendment to remove the DNS blocking provision during the markup process in December. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), who sponsored PIPA in the Senate, said Jan. 12 that more study was needed before implementing DNS-blocking but did not say it would be removed from PIPA.

Even with DNS filtering removed, opponents say the bills place an undue burden on the Website operators to monitor content. Currrently, copyright holders can fill out a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown request demanding that sites to remove specific copyrighted content.

Ill-Defined Bills Put Enforcement Burden on Large, Small Websites




If passed, SOPA and PIPA won't focus on the copyrighted content itself, but require the site operator to remove mentions of the entire domain. SOPA and PIPA focus "on the censorship of links" to entire domains, Jason Harvey, a member of Reddit's technical staff, wrote on the link-sharing site's blog.

This has serious implications for sites like Reddit that rely on user-contributed content. It also has serious implications for social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as they would have to monitor every post and comment to ensure posts never link to an offending domain, even if that particular URL does not contain infringing content, Harvey said. Even companies that don't rely on user-generated content, but allow any kind of user interaction, such as commenting, would have to comply, if faced with the court order.

Small sites won't have sufficient resources to keep up with the onerous task of policing their sites and run the risk of being shut down for violating the court order. The bills would also result in many foreign sites being blacklisted, which means they won't show up in major search engines, Wikipedia noted.

Harvey also noted that the language in the bills used to define who the law would impact was vague and poorly defined. SOPA defines the "foreign Internet site" as any site not using a domestic domain suffix, such as .com, .org and .us and "domestic Internet site" refers to sites that use one of those domain suffixes or is hosted within the United States.

Reddit, hosted in Virginia, runs the risk of having its "red.it" domain being defined as a foreign Internet site. Popular link-shortener service, Bit.ly, based in New York City, is another, according to Harvey. SOPA "naively ignores this complexity, and simply labels a site 'foreign' or 'domestic' based solely on the domain name," Harvey said.

Since the bills don't actually address the content on the sites, SOPA and PIPA in their current forms won't stop online piracy, especially if the site relies on foreign advertising partners. There are also plenty of proxy sites online, many developed with the support of the United States government to help dissenters in other countries circumvent local censorship laws, which could be used to access these blocked sites.

Shortly after the White House issued a letter noting that it would not support any anti-piracy legislation that would affect freedom of speech or affect core Internet architecture, there were reports that SOPA had stalled in the House or been shelved. That is not the case, as Smith issued a statement Jan. 17 stating the committee will resume its markup of the bill in February.

"I am committed to continuing to work with my colleagues in the House and Senate to send a bipartisan bill to the White House that saves American jobs and protects intellectual property," Smith said. 

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