The SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) is an empirically bad thing. Cory Doctorow has an hour-long talk explaining the road to this onerous set of laws, this spider-swallowing to catch a fly to borrow Doctorow’s analogy, but the route to this terrible toll bridge on the information superhighway is less interesting than the toll itself. It is a toll that seems easy enough to swallow, like the spider, where all you have to do is accept that companies have the right to assert their copyright and unilaterally have websites removed from the internet. The spider’s consequences on the body of the internet will however be destructive and ultimately deadly.
First, before you’ll be willing to swallow that spider, you have to accept that the fly in your stomach is a large enough problem. There’s significant reason to think piracy does not significantly diminish sales, and in some scenarios improves them. Despite this, the fly is made out to be a monstrosity that will end intellectual property as we know it. While I don’t believe in intellectual property, I can understand that some people do. And that some people think that the scourge of piracy — which has happened and will continue to happen despite every measure ever taken, which has caused untold frustrations in even the most law-abiding computer user — is more important than the ramifications of a little-understood law is not surprising, but I suspect these people believe software piracy is something akin to high seas piracy where one person is deprived of life, limb and loot to fund another’s prosperity.
This is not the case, though. Software or media copyright infringement does not, in actuality, deprive a content creator of a sale, only of a hypothetical potential-sale. It is every bit as likely that this person who is “consuming” the free copy of your media without paying your requested toll, would never go on to consume that media if copyright infringement was impossible. When you understand that this person did not actually mug a buyer of your CD and steal their physical media, depriving a paying customer of their physical media, the scope of this “crime” is significantly downplayed. Owning that CD, by the way, under modern copyright laws is not actually the same thing as “owning a copy” of the song — you actually own a physical delivery medium and the license to play it for yourself, and that license can be revoked and you could be every bit a criminal for playing your physical medium without that license.
So, knowing that making copies of media is such a Big Onerous Thing for intellectual property owners, where they’re making a monster out of a fly, and that all these Potential Sales are never coming to fruition, along comes the Stop Online Piracy Act. The SOPA proposes that the internet should be subject to top-down DNS cache censorship at the discretion of the United States government. If they decide that, say, the pirate bay dot org is an illegal website, they can cause the DNS servers — the lookup tables that allow computers to find websites — to purge those records for that website. And that purging will, in fact, ripple back up through the rest of the internet, especially for any website that’s actually hosted within America’s borders.
China pulled an identical stunt recently, so that they could censor dissenting views to their dicatatorship with some surprising choices in how they performed that censorship. The rest of the computer world was outraged and built the new DNSSEC protocol, which prevents this kind of top-down imposition of poisoned DNS results by a unilateral and petty dictatorship. The SOPA would give America identical powers — and would also destroy that DNSSEC in the process, because DNSSEC would prevent the application of the new law. Guess which of the two would give, between the DNSSEC protocol and the law?
SOPA was, thankfully, just killed in the US House by two Republican opponents. I hate that the Republicans are the good guys on this one, but I suppose it happens now and again. They’ll be back to toadying up to corporations soon enough. And anyway, by “killed”, I mean hearings have been indefinitely delayed, so the option still exists to resurrect this bill.
The bigger problem we face presently, though, is the fact that a nearly identical bill, PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act), was not killed, and in fact survives presently in the Senate. It’s generally understood that the intent of PIPA is to effect the exact same measures of corporate and governmental censorship, perhaps excluding the unilateral destruction of the DNS system underpinnining the internet as a whole. It is also expected that PIPA will be viewed as the “compromise” bill, as a bill that is less onerous than SOPA in only that it is not explicitly shooting for unilateral American control over worldwide internet name server resources and therefore won’t trigger Obama’s planned veto of any DNS-related measure. And despite the fact that it will have the same detrimental net effects on the whole world’s internet with regard to freedom of speech, this gigantic Trojan horse could very well be passed as a “compromise”. This bill, written by companies to give them exclusive rights to convict anyone of thoughtcrime, will effectively give the US government a veto on anything that happens on the internet.
The major problem this poses to the computing world is that any such imposition over the internet will, unless other countries step in to enact anti-poisoning measures, affect every other country on the planet. Whether by DNS poisoning or other takedown mechanisms, entire swathes of the Internet could chance to disappear at some corporation or government entity’s whim. And in the case of websites hosted in the United States, well, they’re completely subject to getting blacked out. Once a site has been censored by the US government at the behest of the corporations that have the government’s levers of power under strict guard, the rest of the world is subject to that dictum.
At that point, welcome to the real New World Order. It will not come with blog owners putting certain users into spam, as some trolls would have you believe. It will, rather, come with a government deciding that a website — ANY website — violates some corporation’s rights and it will be black-bagged and removed from the entire world’s access.
This sounds hyperbolic, I know. It is as close to 100% accurate as I can manage, though. If people have any real corrections, I (as always) welcome them. The situation is, I’m terribly sad to report, very likely as grim as I paint it.
With all of the ins and outs of the problem we’re all facing, and all because of the coroprate fascism to which America has fallen prey, I am strongly urging Freethought Blogs to participate in the anti-SOPA blackout this Wednesday. Wikipedia and Reddit are both joining in.
If anyone has skin in this game, it’s us freethinkers. We could, by any particularly theistic American government, be deemed to commit thoughtcrime and our site could be disappeared into the night. And with the current trend toward ridiculous levels of theocracy amongst the political class in America, this ain’t something I’m leaving to chance.