SOPA stands for Stop Online Piracy Act. Its intent is to shut down websites that deal in illegally copied content. It has been causing quite a bit of discussion among the technology and Internet news blogs, and seems to be on the verge of breaking into the mainstream news. SOPA is also known as H.R. 3261, a bill introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives by Lamar Smith (R-TX) and a surprisingly bipartisan group of co-sponsors.
There is a related bill in the Senate called PIPA, the Protect IP Act.
SOPA aims to stop rogue websites like The Pirate Bay, a Swedish website which is known to be a facilitator of illegal downloading. TPB allows its users to illegally download copyrighted music, video, applications, games, and other intellectual property.
Of course, the reason to shut down these rogue sites is to protect the revenue of the content creators and the distributors of original content, like music artists, record companies, and the motion picture and film industries. In fact, the two big supporters of SOPA are the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
If the RIAA acronym looks familiar, it might be because it has actively been involved in bringing copyright infringement cases against many different forms of illegal music sharing, including the eventual shutdown of Napster in 2001.
This sounds pretty straightforward so far, but this topic gets a little complicated. For a better perspective on all of this, we'll describe the DMCA first, and then we'll get into SOPA.
The legal tool that brought down Napster was the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which criminalizes the dissemination of copyrighted works via technology such as computers and the Internet.
One aspect of the DMCA was a “safe harbor” for internet providers against liability if they act promptly in blocking or removing infringing material upon receiving notice from a copyright holder. This safe harbor rule saved YouTube and its owner, Google, from a claim of one billion dollars (yes, billion) in damages brought by Viacom Inc.
A criticism of the DMCA was that anyone may claim that a particular work on a website is their copyrighted material, and is there without permission. The website owner is obligated to take down the work, without any due process. No courts or law enforcement is involved. A claim is made, and the website owner needs to take down the offending work, even if the claim is false. The Mega Song is an example of the music industry (Universal Music Group, in this case) using the DMCA fraudulently against MegaUpload (MrKimDotcom).
The RIAA and the MPAA have been aggressive in bringing DMCA copyright infringement cases against individuals. Some say overly aggressive.
The DMCA is used to stop copyright infringement by websites located in the United States. The DMCA does not have the ability to touch websites based in foreign countries.
What Will SOPA Do, Exactly?
What SOPA does, is allow the Justice Department to seek a court order against the offending foreign website. This court order would be served to U.S. based Internet providers to compel them to prevent their subscribers from accessing the offending website. Since the Justice Depatment can't touch the foreign website, it goes to the U.S. based Internet provider to block the website.
More specifically, Internet service providers would be required to alter DNS servers from resolving the domain name of the offending website. This means someone typing “thepiratebay.org” into the address bar of their browser would get an error message, as if the site did not exist, or possibly be directed to a page that explains that the website has been blocked.
Additionally, search engines like Google and Bing would be compelled to alter their search results by eliminating the offending website from the search result listings.
SOPA would also require payment processors (like VISA, MasterCard or PayPal) and ad networks (like Google AdSense) shut down the U.S. based accounts of the offending rogue websites, thereby cutting off direct payments for services and advertisement revenue.
In theory, the proposed law seems to make a lot of sense, but there are problems.
One big concern is how SOPA would require tinkering with the Internet’s DNS system. DNS servers are designed to have the same information no matter where in the world they are located. When there is a valid name change in the system, all DNS servers are systematically updated with the new information. If SOPA were to take effect, DNS server information in the U.S. would be different from DNS servers elsewhere. There would need to be some method put in place to “know” why some U.S. DNS server information is different (and basically erroneous) and should not be updated to servers outside the U.S.
Some experts say that even if the DNS server inconsistencies were worked out, there would be workarounds that could be easily used that would render the DNS block ineffective. One would only need to use DNS servers outside the U.S. or just use the website's IP address to get to a “blocked” site.
Another concern is that SOPA would not be compatible with the implementation of DNSSEC, a set of needed security improvements to the DNS system on the verge of being implemented after a long trial and testing period. Among other things, DNSSEC would protect Internet clients from forged DNS data.
Altering the DNS server information will block access to the entire website, even though it may be that only one page of the website contains offending material. (Imagine having a website like YouTube shut down because one individual uploaded something in violation.) While SOPA does allow for only a partial block on a website, in order for an ISP to know the specific page a visitor is on (so it knows to block it or not) requires the ISP to intercept and analyze its subscriber’s web traffic. This is the Internet’s equivalent of tapping a phone call. Privacy advocates have a major problem with this.
Realize that with SOPA, the burden to stop the internet traffic or to analyze subscriber traffic rests with the Internet service provider, even though the ISP has done nothing wrong, except provide the pipes. You would think that, tasked with the job of analyzing subscriber data and blocking select web locations, ISPs would be against SOPA. Interestingly, Comcast has come out in favor of SOPA. That’s because in addition to being an Internet service provider, Comcast is a cable TV company that needs to work closely with the motion picture and recording industry to provide cable content for their subscribers.
Critics say that the bill, in its present form is written so vaguely that it may be possible to shut down websites similar to YouTube, Flickr, or other websites where users are allowed to upload material. Although the web owner has five days to respond to any complaint, it may be difficult to do that from a foreign country. It would certainly have a detrimental effect on startup websites that might depend on user uploads a part of their concept.
Who’s Who with SOPA?
Google, Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, eBay, Mozilla, Yahoo, AOL and LinkedIn wrote a letter to key members of the U.S. House of Representatives in November stating they were against SOPA. Disqus, foursquare, GrooveShark, Kickstarter, PayPal, Wikipedia, Reddit, Square, The Huffington Post, Craigslist, OpenDNS, Tumblr have also publicly stated they are against SOPA. Microsoft is quietly opposing SOPA.
Here's a list of companies that are publicly for SOPA: ABC, BMI, CBS, Comcast/NBCUniversal, Disney Publishing Worldwide, Inc., EMI Music Publishing, Entertainment Software Association, ESPN, Major League Baseball, Marvel Entertainment LLC, MasterCard Worldwide, National Cable & Telecommunications Association, National Football League, News Corporation, Random House, Scholastic, Inc., Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Sony Music Entertainment, Time Warner, Universal Music, Universal Music Publishing Group, Viacom, Visa Inc., Warner Music Group.
Are you now better able to put a face on what this is about?
Go Daddy, an Internet domain registrar, initially came out in favor of SOPA. This met with very strong disagreement among many Internet users and customers of Go Daddy, so much so that a godaddyboycott.org website was created, and in about a week, Go Daddy lost over 70,000 domains. On December 23, Go Daddy caved, and announced that it did not support SOPA anymore.
Hollywood vs. The Internet
The GoDaddy boycott reveals the strong, emotional anti-SOPA sentiment among the Internet crowd, some who still have memories of the glory days of Napster and how the RIAA’s lawyers eventually gutted the music-sharing site.
They have no sympathy for the Hollywood types, the RIAA and the MPAA, who have aggressively gone after individuals who have been suspected of sharing copyrighted material. The RIAA and the MPAA demand to be paid thousands of dollars as compensation for "lost sales," or the individuals are dragged into court.
Erosion of Rights, Fear of Censorship
In the eyes of the Internet people, the RIAA and the MPAA are the “bad guys” for their hardball tactics against individuals who just want to share and listen to each other’s music and videos. The Internet crowd fears that Hollywood will use its money and influence to write SOPA to unfairly favor the Hollywood types, giving them even more legal power to shut down sites with no due process. And, as shown in the MegaUpload versus Universal Music example above, given the opportunity, they will abuse the rules.
The Internet groups do not trust that Hollywood will use SOPA with fair and measured restraint, which should be the standard, since the Internet is an important venue for freedom of speech and expression.
SOPA is troubling to many because it sets a precedent for a mechanism to block websites. The underlying fear is that this kind of law opens the door for censorship on the web. For the Internet crowd, with their broadband speeds and streaming media and cat videos and conspiracy theories and political blogs and Lady Gaga and Facebook and Twitter, censorship is exactly opposite of how the Internet should be.
Rules That Do Nothing
In addition to the fears of censorship, another aspect is that a lot of the Internet crowd gets really riled when they see lawmakers who know nothing of how the Internet works try to legislate how the Internet should be run, imposing artificial rules that do nothing to solve the problem for which they were intended, create inefficiencies and interfere with Internet security and privacy.
The House of Representatives is scheduled to take up this bill again in January. It was initially thought that it would sail through the Judiciary Committee, but in December, its members were caught off-guard with the unexpectedly strong opposition.
There recently been talk among the anti-SOPA groups of some kind of very public, very visible demonstration to bring public awareness to SOPA. Be looking for it.
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