After President Barack Obama released a statement over the weekend that he would not sign any bill resembling the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Representative Darrell Issa postponed Wednesday’s hearing on the proposed law. News as of today is that SOPA is DOA. Since December, prominent tech figures and digital activists, including luminaries like Sergey Brin of Google and Jack Dorsey of Twitter, have characterized the bill as a draconian measure that would chill online innovation. A number of popular websites like GoDaddy, Reddit, and Wikipedia have threatened to black out service for a day to boycott the law, and Craigslist, in its rudimentary script, has a running message on its site protesting the measure. New legislation introduced by Issa and Senator Ron Wyden called the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN) looks to avoid a number of the problems with SOPA that upset Web-service providers. The debate over how to protect copyrights online nevertheless continues to pit entertainment moguls against tech’s celebrity innovators in a fight for the future of the Internet.
Proponents of a SOPA-like bill, who include most major media companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say the legislation is necessary to save millions of entertainment jobs. Opponents say that such a bill would “kill the Internet.” Amid this well-covered polarization, very little discussion has detailed what the bill intends to do and why its measures have enraged much of the online community.
The last major piece of legislation devoted to online copyright protection was the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) passed by the Clinton administration in 1998. The DMCA establishes that Internet service providers (ISPs) and other online intermediaries aren’t accountable for infringing material that moves through their networks. Under the DMCA, it is the responsibility of copyright owners to send takedown notices to those infringing their property. Anyone on YouTube who has ever read, “This video has been removed due to terms of violation,” has seen the result of a DMCA notice. The process works one infringing piece of content at a time. Law enforcement has no recourse to shut down entire websites under the DMCA.
Since the passage of the DMCA, media companies have funded a mountain of research to argue that more severe online enforcement is necessary. According to one consultancy report published a year ago, the top three foreign piracy websites—rapidshare.com, megavideo.com, and megaupload.com, host over 21 billion visits each year, or about 60 million views a day. The same report estimated that, all told, piracy accounts for nearly 25 percent of online traffic, and more recent presentations by the Motion Picture Association of America have put the number closer to 50 percent. Corporate estimates suggest online piracy cost the media industry somewhere between $30 billion and $75 billion in 2008. These figures rely on a lot of extrapolation and are the subject of intense debate. Questions of veracity aside, this is the picture media companies offer Congress as they urge fast action to stop online piracy.
SOPA and its counterpart in the Senate, PROTECT-IP (aka PIPA), would allow the U.S. Justice Department to police the Internet to curb foreign-based piracy sites. Four areas of Internet traffic and infrastructure would be targeted to ameliorate sites “dedicated to infringing activities.” The Justice Department would be able to force Internet service providers based in the U.S., like Verizon, Time Warner, and Comcast, to remove foreign sites suspected of piracy from their networks. Domain-name servers, the companies that host “www-dot” Web addresses, would be required to remove suspected domains from their directories. Search engines and other “information location tools,” from Google to Twitter, would be forbidden to display hyperlinks to sites blacklisted by the Justice Department. Advertisers and payment processors, like Visa, MasterCard, or PayPal, would have to cease offering their services as well. While the DMCA still allows access to a site even if an embedded media player has been disabled due to copyright violation, under SOPA or PROTECT-IP there will be no site at all.
Instead of using federal law enforcement and the U.S. criminal-justice system to intervene on behalf of copyright holders, the rival OPEN bill calls for rights holders to adjudicate infringement claims through international trade laws. Rights holders would send cease-and-desist orders to credit-card companies and online advertisement services doing business with piracy sites. WikiLeaks offers one recent example of the impact of cutting off payment avenues to unwanted sites. Visa and MasterCard voluntarily discontinued offering the website their services after WikiLeaks released classified documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without the support of the credit-card companies, what was once the story of the year became an almost nonexistent website.
Markham Erickson, the executive director of the Net Coalition, an organization that represents the policy interests of Google, PayPal, and Wikipedia, among others, supports the OPEN Act approach. “It’s a proven way of attacking illegal offshore sites in a way that doesn’t create all the collateral damage that some of the technological proposals do,” Erickson says.
SOPA legislation, in its current form, raises a number of free-speech concerns. Few sites exclusively house infringing content. If the Justice Department starts blocking piracy sites from U.S. networks, some amount of non-infringing expression could be blocked as well. It is an alarming precedent considering that the State Department is pressuring repressive regimes to loosen restrictions on citizens’ Web access. The international community might conclude that, in some cases, the United States prioritizes intellectual-property rights over the right to free expression. Given this example, one can imagine that Iran, Russia, and China could also find principles more pressing than ensuring free and unfettered speech on the Internet.
The legislation also threatens the universal integrity of the Internet. Many open-Web advocates worry users in the U.S. will seek out the “whole Internet,” that is, everything on the Web prior to the intervention of U.S. law enforcement. “The first thing that people are going to do is start using domain-name services that are outside of the United States. It’s really sort of the Tower of Babel introduced into IP addresses,” says Duke law professor James Boyle. While some suckers will still be on a blacked-out U.S. Web service, many others will be enjoying an uncensored Web-browsing experience developed by innovators in Russia, India, or Brazil.
Opponents also say that the legislation places unreasonable expectations on some beloved online tools. “[SOPA and PROTECT-IP] impose obligations on entities like Twitter—any entity that provides a hyperlink—to somehow prescreen hyperlinks that are posted by third parties to make sure that they are not going to an illegal site,” says Erickson of the Net Coalition. This is a particularly onerous requirement because the bills also encourage private recourse for copyright holders to sue websites they believe are not adequately protecting intellectual property.
SOPA raises some technological issues as well. The bill threatens an Internet-security initiative called Domain Name Server Security (DNSSEC), which Internet engineers have been working to establish for about 20 years. DNSSEC wants to bind the relationship between domain names (the www-dots) and Internet-protocol addresses (the sequence of numbers computers use to communicate with the www-dots). Anyone familiar with the ghastly experience of a site redirecting to spam knows that the relationship between a domain name and its IP address is not perfectly secure. Imitation sites that defraud users who are accessing bank accounts and other personal information exploit this disconnect. “These new cyber-security initiatives would make it impossible for link-lookup services to lie. When that’s in place, ISPs can’t do what PROTECT-IP and SOPA want them to do,” says David Sohn, senior policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. It’s a choice between the measures outlined in SOPA and PROTECT-IP and a more robust system of online security.
All of which is anathema to the popular ethos of the Internet. Web development has favored a global network defined by communication passed across an unrestricted and egalitarian platform. SOPA looks like the first major retreat from these principles ushered in by the U.S. government. The bill condones the removal of certain expression from the Web. It incentivizes the development and adoption of alternative “off the grid” Web-hosting services. It negates cyber-security initiatives and adds layers of liability for innovators creating new products online. SOPA opponents perceive this set of consequences in stark relief and conclude that the law will “kill the Internet.”