Opponents of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act circulating in the House of Representatives got a boost after the White House said it would not support any legislation that would result in online censorship or posed cyber-security risks to the Internet’s infrastructure.
The Obama administration was concerned about proposed legislation that sought to “tamper” with the Internet by manipulating the Domain Name System, according to a letter released Jan. 14. DNS-filtering could pose a “real risk” to cyber-security and was not the way to fight online piracy, wrote White House cyber-security coordinator Howard Schmidt; Victoria Espinel, intellectual property enforcement coordinator; and Aneesh Chopra, federal CTO.
The White House has been silent in recent months as the debate over online piracy and censorship raged over SOPA and its counterpart in the Senate, Protect IP Act (PIPA). The recent statement was in response to two petitions asking the administration to weigh in on the SOPA debate. They were generated by the government’s online petition tool “We the People.”
“Our analysis of the DNS-filtering provisions in some proposed legislation suggests that they pose a real risk to cyber-security and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online,” Schmidt wrote.
The White House letter was “welcome news,” according to Markham Erickson, executive director of industry group netCoalition. “We appreciate the Administration’s recognition that our ability to innovate, invest and grow the economy is dependent upon keeping the Internet open and free,” Erickson said.
News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch was incensed with the White House statement. “So Obama has thrown in his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery,” Murdoch posted on Twitter. “Piracy leader is Google who streams movies free, sells advts around them. No wonder pouring millions into lobbying,” he added.
The White House statement was released a day after Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the sponsor of the bill, announced he will remove the DNS-filtering provision from the draft. SOPA, if passed, would have allowed copyright-owners to obtain court orders to force ISPs to block the offending Website’s DNS record to prevent users from accessing the site entirely.
“After consultation with industry groups across the country, I feel we should remove Domain Name System-blocking from the Stop Online Piracy Act so that the Committee can further examine the issues surrounding this provision,” Smith said in the statement.
The bill’s opponents had pointed out that mandatory DNS-blocking would require ISPs to remove Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) and other layers of security that verify that Websites are legitimate. The U.S. government has been a strong supporter for rolling out the DNSSEC to secure the naming system. “We must avoid legislation that drives users to dangerous, unreliable DNS servers and puts next-generation security policies, such as the deployment of DNSSEC, at risk,” according to the White House letter.
The White House was also opposed to “overly broad private rights of action that could encourage unjustified litigation” or that could “discourage startup businesses and innovative firms from growing,” according to the statement. Any proposed legislation must “be effectively tailored, with strong due process and focused on criminal activity.”
“Across the globe, the openness of the Internet is increasingly central to innovation in business, government, and society and it must be protected,” the White House said.
With the DNS provision removed, SOPA now resembles OPEN Act, a more moderate approach to online piracy introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Issa postponed a hearing set for Jan. 18 in which security experts were expected to testify about the effects of DNS-filtering, in light of Smith backing down and the decision by Majority Leader Eric Cantor not to allow the bill to appear before the full House without full consensus of the committee.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), who sponsored PIPA in the Senate, said Jan. 12 that more study was needed before implementing DNS-blocking. PIPA, unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in May, was expected to come up for a floor vote sometime in the next two weeks. However, some Republicans are now asking for the vote to be delayed in light of the opposition.