Stop Online Piracy Act: Terrible Law. Great Example of Internet Mobilization?

We’re in trouble. The future of the internet is in danger, and if that danger comes to pass, it’s both unhealthy for and a very bad indicator of the health of our democracy.

Congress is already very close to passing companion bills to censor the internet, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA, H.R. 3261) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA, S. 968). This is in addition to the domain name seizures already underway by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

All of these efforts are terrible ideas. Their supporters don’t understand or care about the internet and are happily willing to break the internet to appease the content industry. It is among the very worst contemporary examples of a government that is of, by, and for special interests, and if it passes, it will be a slap in the face of democracy, free expression, due process, and technological innovation. To top it all? It won’t even do much to stop online infringement.

Fortunately, there may be signs that things are turning our way. I’ll get to that further below.

EFF has a great summary of the several ways SOPA can lead to a site getting shut down. Section 102 deals with foreign sites and is the most all-encompassing, but 103 and 104 are actually easier for rights holders to (mis)use, and they apply to domestic as well as foreign sites, so I’ll start there.

Section 103 allows IP rights holders to go directly to a website’s payment processors and advertisers—and to demand that these third parties cease all business with the website operator. These payment processors and advertisers then have just five days to act. The website operator has the right to file a counter-notice that they are not substantially dedicated to infringement, but (a) they may not get the chance until after the payment processors and advertisers have already cut off payments, and (b) the third parties have no obligation to take the counter-notice as final and re-establish a business relationship.

Section 104 takes this “default=censorship” strategy even further. Everyone in the internet ecosystem—registrars, web hosts, advertisers, financial processors, search engines, etc. etc.—gets near-categorical federal and state immunity for any decision to terminate a business relationship with a site (or even to shutter a site) “in the reasonable belief” that the site is dedicated to infringement. Under Section 103, a rights holder must at least file a claim. Under Section 104, even the intimation that a site is infringing might be enough to get it shut down—and the site would have no legal recourse.

The Administration also gets in on the fun in Section 102, which gives the Attorney General the power to use government-mandated Domain Name System (DNS) filtering to stop Americans from accessing “foreign infringing sites.” A domain name, such as Google.com, is an easy-to-remember way to tell one’s computer to go to a specific numeric address (e.g., 74.125.39.147). It is this number (the IP address) that identifies that site’s server (the computer that hosts the website). Everyone enters the domain name into their browser’s internet address bar, but the numbers would take one to the same site. Click on the numbers above or paste them into your browser to see for yourself.

Under Section 102, if a site were found to be primarily dedicated to infringement, the government could “seize” the site’s domain name. More precisely, the domain name registrar—a company that keeps track of which domain names are attached to which servers—would, if US-based, be compelled to stop sending users to the correct server. All domestic ISPs would also be forbidden to take you to the right server (the number behind the name), and advertisers and banks would be forbidden from doing business with these companies.

If the government found a foreign site to be infringing under these bills, the government would try to make it disappear for US audiences.

If this bill becomes law, we will see the shuttering and/or financial starvation of thousands of websites—which are, of course, a form of speech and/or press. They would be silenced and/or starved based on either an affidavit by a rights holder, a mere suspicion by a business partner, or (at best!) a one-sided court hearing with a low burden of proof. Little wonder then that legal scholars from (my friend and) rising star Marvin Amorri to the legendary constitutional scholar Laurence H. Tribe (pdf) have concluded that the bills are unconstitutional threats to the First Amendment.

By now it should be clear that, if passed into law, SOPA or PIPA would have devastating consequences for innocent actors who are mistakenly identified. The web seizures undertaken by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), beginning in 2010, illustrate this peril all too well. Several websites have been taken down for posting media files that were authorized and even actively shared by the copyright holders or their representatives. Others have apparently been seized merely for linking to allegedly infringing content.

One in particular, DaJaz1.com, has become the cause célèbre of the anti-domain-seizures movement. It was one of a cluster of hip hop websites seized last year. Major voices from Vibe to Kanye to P. Diddy were actively promoting the sites, hardly a sign that they are dedicated to copyright infringement.

Last week, the feds finally gave up on DaJaz1. TechDirt (which has nearly gone all-SOPA, all-the-time) had the headline:

Feds Falsely Censor Popular Blog For Over A Year, Deny All Due Process, Hide All Details…

Their opening clarifies exactly how unconstitutional this is:

Imagine if the US government, with no notice or warning, raided a small but popular magazine’s offices over a Thanksgiving weekend, seized the company’s printing presses, and told the world that the magazine was a criminal enterprise with a giant banner on their building. Then imagine that it never arrested anyone, never let a trial happen, and filed everything about the case under seal, not even letting the magazine’s lawyers talk to the judge presiding over the case. And it continued to deny any due process at all for over a year, before finally just handing everything back to the magazine and pretending nothing happened. I expect most people would be outraged. I expect that nearly all of you would say that’s a classic case of prior restraint, a massive First Amendment violation, and exactly the kind of thing that does not, or should not, happen in the United States.

They go on to detail how DaJaz1’s owners were stonewalled, blockaded, and never allowed their day in court by the feds—for over a year—while the feds managed to arrange a court process during which all court proceedings (including several granting extensions that DaJaz1’s owners should have been able to contest) were secret and all the filings were sealed and not open to the site owners.

Once the details of the accusations came out, it turned out that the allegedly infringing songs were given directly to the blog by copyright holders’ agents in the hopes of promoting the music. The RIAA was the source of the original complaint, and one of the songs in question was not even released by an RIAA label.

Another operation using similar methods but for a different goal—seizing sites with child pornography—mistakenly took down 84,000 sites in one shot, resulting in each of those thousands of sites being down for 3 days. Even worse, each domain was redirected to an ICE notice that the website had been seized for trafficking in child pornography. Nearly all of those sites were not dedicated to child pornography, and to my knowledge, ICE never even apologized to them for the error.

Further, it takes little imagination to picture a devastating chill on legitimate sites that make fair uses of copyrighted content. If I run a news and commentary site, I may be less likely to include portions of copyrighted works, even if such inclusion is very likely fair use and crucially relevant to my discussion of the matters at hand.

In particular, media criticism sites would be in grave peril; how long after the bill’s passage would it be before partisan news outlets started using the new law to silence their critics? How long before FoxNews goes after Media Matters for America? Think that’s far fetched? Witness Righthaven’s efforts to sue bloggers for using even brief quotations. And what was on the list of threats they used to scare people into paying licensing fees? Domain seizure. Among other things, these bills would give a hunting license for those who would like to shutter the sites of upstarts, competitors, and critics.

At least these bills will stop piracy, right? Hardly.

Dedicated infringers will still find infringing sites—especially foreign sites that host infringing files with impunity. Remember, the feds are seizing the site name (e.g., Google.com) but not the number behind it (74.125.39.147). All you need is a small program to tell your computer to go to the right number—and, because the bill will forbid your ISP from getting you there, a proxy server in the middle. The same strategies have already proven successful for dissidents behind government firewalls, who still manage to upload and download forbidden information—despite far more active, on-the-fly, and resource-intensive censorship schemes.

Programmers have already developed tools to work around these restrictions. The law hasn’t even passed yet, and already there is a Firefox plugin that would help users work around SOPA-like restrictions.

You might think that at least payment processors and advertiser networks would be scared off of dealing with these sites. If it were that easy—if we could target the banks and advertisers that support internet scofflaws—then spam and other internet evils would have long since been wiped out.

The internet breeds decentralized innovation, and innovators will spring into action to help users circumvent ISP and search engine filters as well. This software will also be considered grounds for legal action—with the goal being to ban the tools, as the 1998 DMCA bans DRM-hacking devices. That’s worked so poorly that multiple free circumvention tools are available for most major DRM systems. There are so many DVD rippers that LifeHacker has a post comparing rippers to help you choose the best.

As if all of the above failures and offenses were not enough, these bills would harm our economy and reduce our competitiveness in the internet age. If SOPA were law when YouTube was getting started, the site probably would have been shuttered. The next YouTube will be much less likely to be born in the US if it can be kicked out of the legitimate portion of the web before it has really grown up. The EFF warns that sites like Etsy, Flickr, and Vimeo would be in danger.

Internet innovation is one of the few bright spots in the economy, and major internet firms have warned that this will increase the cost of regulatory compliance and decrease our competitiveness. Venture capitalists have also warned that SOPA would substantially decrease their willingness to invest in US technology start-ups. Union Square Ventures, just down the street here in NYC, even put this link saying the same thing on their homepage.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has placed a hold on PROTECT-IP, and he has even vowed to filibuster the bill should it come to the Senate floor. Because of this principled opposition and his long record of standing up for internet freedom, I made a donation to Sen. Wyden’s re-election campaign—even though my wife and I are watching every dollar as we save to buy our first home.

So these bills are terrrrrible, but they enjoy a lot of support in the House and Senate—30 cosponsors in the House, and a whopping 40 in the Senate. This post is derived from an email I sent to my Senators and Representative, and all three wrote back with disappointing notes to the effect of, “Yeah, but we gotta stop internet infringement.” Surely this is unrelated to the content industries having spent far, far more money on lobbying and campaign donations than their opponents on this issue.

Which brings us back to democracy.

In response to these bills, we have seen the swelling of a major internet movement—nearly the groundswell we saw around network neutrality in 2006. Opponents created a campaign declaring November 16—the day of a hearing in the House that was heavily stacked in favor of SOPA—as “American Censorship Day,” a campaign that went viral in a major way. Over 6,000 sites including Wikipedia, Creative Commons, Mozilla (including the default start page in Firefox), Reddit, TechDirt, and BoingBoing, directed traffic to a single action site, AmericanCensorship.org. At the time, the site said that it had generated over 1,000,000 emails and four calls per second to Congress. To date, AmericanCensorship.org has earned over 650,000 Facebook likes and 63,000 tweets.

This is democracy in action. After all, most people don’t support draconian copyright enforcement, and a solid majority of people oppose government attempts to block access to infringing materials. (40% support, 56% oppose; this skews to 33% for, 64% against when framed as censorship.)

If Wyden’s hold and the opposition can stop this fast-moving train(wreck), then perhaps democratic values and majority opinion can actually shape the future of the internet. Just maybe, a public outcry can stop a terrible idea backed by special interests.

If not, we may be in big trouble—and not just because the internet will be broken.

One thought on “Stop Online Piracy Act: Terrible Law. Great Example of Internet Mobilization?

  1. It turns out that, as I was writing manically, the House was modifying I’d failed to notice the previous day’s modifications of SOPA. It’s a tiny bit less awful but still terrrrrible.

    Here’s the Wikimedia General Counsel arguing that the law is still awful.

    And here’s the EFF arguing that the bill is still a disaster.

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