As long as you don’t examine the details, the Stop Online Piracy Act (HR 3261) might sound like a good idea. Many people agree that using illegal copies of movies or music is a bad idea.
That’s the reason we have copyright laws, and that’s the reason you see that FBI warning about illegal reproduction of copyrighted works at the beginning of a DVD. But the SOPA bill now under consideration by the House Judiciary Committee seems hell-bent on stopping piracy by stopping the Internet. After all, if there’s no way to use the Internet, then such piracy would be impossible.
But, of course, it’s never as simple as that. What the SOPA bill does is attempt to force a number of actions on private companies as a way to protect other private companies. For example, the government would be able to force anyone with a Domain Name System (DNS) server to stop providing name services to alleged piracy sites. These orders would not require proof, and the requests could originate from anyone. So under the proposed act, it’s conceivable that Apple could decide that the Android Marketplace is a pirate site, and force it to be removed from DNS servers and shut down.
And that’s the problem with the current bill. It features a complete lack of understanding of how the Internet works, a total lack of understanding of the technology behind the Internet, and a disregard of some basic constitutional protections. It looks like the Republican-led committee got a big wet kiss from the recording industry and has become so smitten it believes everything the industry says, disregarding other opinions.
This is evidenced by the fact that five of the six witnesses testifying before the committee Nov. 16 hearing were backers of the bill. Only one company opposing the bill, Google, was invited. The nonpartisan public interest group, OpenCongress, called the hearings a “sham,” and a “love fest.”
“The hearing was very disappointing,” Tech Freedom Senior Fellow Larry Downes told eWEEK. “The witness list was not balanced. Five out of six of the witnesses strongly support the bill,” Downes explained. “The bill will regulate a wide range of actors in the ecosystem, and none were represented in the hearing.”
The only witness opposing the SOPA bill was Google Policy Counsel Katherine Oyama. Oyama said that SOPA would undermine existing copyright laws, endanger innocent U.S. businesses and create security risks to Critical U.S. Infrastructure by preventing the use of the Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC).
Ironically, the live Webcast of the hearing was fraught with so many problems that it was essentially useless, prompting the Electronic Frontier Foundation to Tweet, “If Congress can’t be trusted to set up a simple Webcast, how can we trust them to regulate the Internet?” The EFF described the problem in a blog entry during the hearing.
House, Senate Versions of Anti-piracy Acts Conflict
Tech Freedom’s Downes, meanwhile, pointed out that simply blocking DNS servers isn’t going to work. As any number of people have repeatedly pointed out in recent years, the Internet is sufficiently flexible that there will always be another way to get to material you want. “Block requests for particular domains aren’t going to help,” Downes explained, “but what it will do is create a splintered version of the Domain Name System. The result is going to be that instead of a relatively unified DNS system, if they make use of this, we’ll get a splintered DNS system.”
“That’s a big problem,” Downes said, “It has a huge potential cost to the integrity of the Internet, but it has no benefit. It won’t have any benefit to the trademark process.”
Downes also pointed out that one provision of the bill would allow anyone to demand that ad networks or payment processors immediately stop doing business with a Website that the letter-writer claims is violating copyrights.
There’s no provision that requires the ad network or payment processor to provide notice, no requirement for proof that the person writing the letter actually has a copyright interest. Worse, Downes said, “There’s no due process or judicial oversight. The bill gives them immunity if they make a mistake or if the person didn’t have any right to do it.”
Downes also noted that the criminalization of violations of streaming media copyrights was so extreme that a video of a child singing something like “Happy Birthday” on YouTube could be prosecuted as a felony, and the person posting the video could be imprisoned.
The language of SOPA is so broad, the rules so unconnected to the reality of Internet technology and the penalties so disconnected from the alleged crimes that this bill could effectively kill e-commerce or even normal Internet use. The bill also has grave implications for existing U.S., foreign and international laws and is sure to spend decades in court challenges.
Fortunately, this is the House version of a Senate bill called the Protect IP Act (S. 968) that is very different. As a result, both bills if passed in something resembling their current states will have to be considered by a conference committee. The resulting merged bills probably wouldn’t resemble the current SOPA bill. But the problem with depending on the conference committee is that you never really know what will come out and what else will be slipped into the bill at the last minute.
One can only hope that reason will prevail and kill or modify SOPA before the House passes it.