Fight Piracy, Not Internet Users: Stop the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)

One of the oldest jokes about Jews is if you ask three of us a question, you may get seven different answers. The discussion of ideas, the interpretation of laws and values is a central tenet to Judaism. It is also a fundamental part of why this blog, and countless blogs on other topics across the country, are successful. But what if the ability to freely share ideas were taken away? Normally this question would be followed by comments about the latest crackdown on citizens in Iran, Syria or North Korea. Unfortunately, this time a piece of US legislation is the culprit.

There is legislation pending in congress, called the Stop Online Piracy Act, and sister legislation in the Senate called the Protect IP Act, which both implement draconian measures to attempt to reduce piracy on the Internet.  The side effects of even attempting to reduce piracy via this legislation would come at tremendous cost. The legislation in its initial form breaks the internet, restricts free speech, threatens cute kittens, and violates due process.  Regardless of whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or someone who just wants to be left alone, below are the reasons to be alarmed by SOPA.

In its original form, SOPA literally breaks the internet. The website names in the address bar are translated to numbers through a process called DNS.  Mainly because it’s a lot easier to remember google.com than its IP address of 74.125.113.106.  SOPA wants to block US internet providers from forwarding on to sites associated with piracy. The problem is that any attempts to redirect traffic to anywhere other than the requested destination is treated by both software and hardware as an attack. There is no way to teach our computers the difference between a good redirection and a bad one. Worse, the bill wants to ban a new technology created by the US government called DNSSEC, which was developed specifically to prevent DNS redirections. The bottom line is that the internet would be considerably less safe, and everything from businesses to national security would be affected.

 Note: SOPA and its sister act PIPA are currently undergoing major review in this capacity, with a promise from the House, Senate, and White House that they will not break the internet to try to block piracy. However Congress has reserved the right to add this back in after “further investigation.”

Due process for sites accused of piracy is ignored. Currently blogs, and other content providers, as well as search engines are protected from what users post by what is called the “Safe Harbor” Clause in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Basically if a user posts a copyrighted video in the comments section of the blog, the owner of that copyright has to file a formal complaint, and then the website owner is required to research the request and take any appropriate action. The owner of the website can only be sued if they are negligent in responding to the request. However, under SOPA, these protections are abandoned. Worse, there is no real burden of proof to sue the website and the original version of the bill allowed ex parte proceedings, which according to an article in the Stanford Law Review means that “only one side (the prosecutor or even a private plaintiff) need present evidence and the operator of the allegedly infringing site need not be present nor even made aware that the action was pending against his or her “property.” The bottom line is those accused could be found guilty of copyright infringement for actions they were not responsible for and without an opportunity to even defend themselves.

It hurts social media and job growth. Because the law does not clearly define what copyright infringement is, people could potentially be fined or thrown in jail for a traditionally acceptable action, for example lip syncing a song on Youtube. Forbes recently quoted a venture capitalist saying that  they would no longer fund social media startups (one of the fastest growing areas of the tech world and the economy in general) if this new legislation happened, because of the massive risk from lawsuits.

Numerous sites have also correctly claimed that SOPA & PIPA would infringe on our country’s rich history of freedom of speech.

SOPA is an extremely damaging piece of legislation. It rocks the very core of American society, decreasing our security, changing the burden of proof onto the accused, and hurting our economy.

Opposition to this bill has been overwhelming and bipartisan. Republican Senators Charles Grassley, Orrin Hatch, Jeff Sessions, John Cornyn, Mike Lee, and Tom Coburn have signed a letter against PIPA. Across the aisle, Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Maria Cantwell (who are co-sponsors of alternate anti-piracy legislation, along with Republican Jerry Moran) have also opposed the bill, as has Ben Cardin. In the House, Darren Issa, Nancy Pelosi, and Paul Ryan are leading the anti-SOPA efforts. Even members of the Obama administration have emphasized that they “ will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”

In the private sector, the opposition has been even more overwhelming. The Net Coalition, which represents leading global Internet and technology companies, including Google, Yahoo!, Amazon.com, eBay, and Wikipedia, to name a few, has undertaken a number of civil and lobbying efforts to block the legislation (see a statement here).

Google has launched a petition on its website. Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, went so far as to have a 24-hour blackout of his website on January 18, in protest of the legislation.

But this preliminary opposition, while important, is not enough. More individual voters need to get involved, too. Remember, there are hundreds of ways that SOPA could affect you daily. So read up on the legislation and, even better, contact your elected representative about this issue and let them know you will not see the internet ruined in your name.  Copyright owners have a right to protect their content, but not at the costs society would pay from either SOPA or PIPA.

Hopefully the OPEN Act, a recently proposed bipartisan alternative to SOPA/PIPA, will allow copyright owner to be protect without ruining the internet.

Thank you,

Jon Halperin