The rise of the Internet as an intractable piece of the global social engine has brought with it a number of large scale societal problems. One of the ones that has resisted a common ground solution the hardest is that of how to protect intellectual property in the information age.
Piracy of information has been a problem for a long time. Bootlegs of concerts and copies of videotapes have been black market staples for decades. The advent of the internet, though, has raised this problem to a new level. Just about all but the most in-person art forms are now easily digitizable. If they are digitized, then they can be copied to every person on the planet almost instantaneously.
This is a startling development that few people saw coming, and a monumental problem for defenders of intellectual property. In turn, they have often taken what amounts to “scorched earth” policies to combat it. Arguably, the worst of these yet is now under consideration. It is known as “SOPA” or the “Stop Online Piracy Act” … and it has internet freedom advocates sounding the alarm like never before.
Is it that bad?
As with all modern legislation, 112 HR 3261 is a plate of legalese spaghetti. At 78 pages, it’s actually kind of short as modern legislation goes. If you are reading it, though, and you fall on your face as you try to cut your way through lines such as…
“If an effective counter notification is made under subsection (b)(5), or if a payment network provider fails to comply with subsection (b)(1), or an Internet advertising service fails to comply with subsection (b)(2), pursuant to a notification under subsection (b)(4) in the absence of such a counter notification…”
…you could be a bit forgiven. As always, then, we have to go by the read from the “experts” on this, and we know how often they’re in agreement. Still, going to the authorities that we trust most here, such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation, this looks really bad.
A first power – private enforcement of complaints, and lots of it
What seems to make SOPA so bad is that its approach to potential “rogue” web sites or copyright infringers is little less than “Whatever you have to do”. The main target for this legislation is anyone who abets the web site in question. This includes not only those who host the site but anyone who has even an indirect hand in its continued operation, with payment processors the primary target.
The way that SOPA works for most reviews is this. Someone lodges a complaint against a web site. The web site operator passes the complaint on to the web site operator, who has 5 days to issue a retort. At that point, if the original one complaining wants to, they would take legal action.
This is not new; it is roughly how the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) works. What makes this worse is that it is not just web hosts that are required to cut off the accused web site, but payment processors and ad networks as well. The potential for abuse here is obvious.
Enforcements expands to almost everything
Search engines would also be saddled with the duty to prevent the offending site “from being served as a direct hypertext link”. Software to get around any such blocks would be outright illegal. This is an especially ominous precedent, as it states that certain types of programming now be made illegal. Step back for a second and just picture what a future based on that kind of idea could lead to.
A further extension of this attack exemplifies why such blunt measures often have the potential to do far more harm than good. ISPs would be included in the list of companies whose responsibility it would be to cut off access from the offending site. But this is like finding a fish by draining the ocean. A domain name can handle traffic that serves all manners of functions related to all types of web sites. Forcibly shutting it down over a single complaint could rip the interplay of websites, indeed the very concept of the “web” apart. A past example of this occurred when 84,000 sub-domains of “mooo.com” were shut down due to a complain about the content on one of them.
Finally, the bill ventures into the creepy territory occupied by enforcement agencies which require that their citizens spy on each other. Websites that don’t sufficiently target sites “dedicated to infringing activities” are also considered in violation. As is often the case, what constitutes sufficient enforcement on their part is unclear.
Please tell me that some people are standing up against this!
Yes, they are, and it’s not just the EFF. US Representative Zoe Lofgren, one of the most consistent voices in Washington DC against most intellectual property legislation, stated this legislation would bring about “the end of the Internet as we know it”. From anyone else this might be laughable alarmism, but as the Congresswoman representing Silicon Valley, Lofgren has been described by one tech group as someone who “understands how the Internet works.”
Other opponents to the bill include Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, who vowed that even if passed, “we would still fight it”, a bold declaration of resistance. Fred Wilson of the Business Insider described the bill as being crafted “without any input from the technology industry”. Even some artists have spoken up stating that, to the contrary, SOPA will stifle creativity.
Why is this happening?
This is happening because the media empires of the world are getting frantic. Oceans of copyrighted data are passing through networks all around the world and the efforts of those trying to stop it are roughly the equivalent of someone trying to keep the rain from hitting the ground by running around with a bucket. Data about how much less money people are spending on copyrighted content comes in every day. Sorry to be putting it in cynical sounding terms, but in the end, it is simply about money.
This isn’t to short-circuit the debate about intellectual property entirely. This has been a long-discussed topic in technical and political circles, and even without this new legislation was likely to not be going away anytime soon. In the meantime, though, this legislation from all we’ve seen signifies a very worrisome turn. It seems to have been stalled for now. We can only hope that this continues until something that seems like it responds to the IP conundrum with something less than taking a hatchet to the entirety of the Internet is crafted.