The ongoing controversy surrounding the SOPA and PIPA anti-piracy bills in Congress has produced a lot of things: misunderstanding of what the bills would do; silly rhetoric from trade groups supposedly defending content creators; confusion on Capitol Hill; and a clear demonstration of how insulated and uninformed many citizens are. But perhaps the worst thing to come out of all of this is the almost comical picture it paints of Congress and its complete lack of understanding of the Internet and its role in society, business and freedom.
The two bills are nominally meant to curb online piracy by giving the Department of Justice broad powers to take actions against virtually any site that it deems to be infringing on the rights of one or more copyright holder. This could apply to a huge swath of sites that house any sort of user-generated content, as well as a wide array of other sites. The enforcement mechanisms in the bill would enable authorities to effectively knock these sites offline and force other companies, such as payment processors and ISPs to stop doing business with them.
All of this is to be done in the name of protecting the rights of content creators whose works are pirated and either resold or given away without any recompense for the artists. No one disputes that musicians, writers, filmmakers and others who create original works deserve to be paid for their efforts. Without their work, the world would be a dull, lifeless place and no one would have anything to listen to on the treadmill at the gym.
But the real problem is that neither SOPA nor PIPA would solve the problems that these creators have. The business models in the publishing, music and movie industries are in large part broken and no law passed in the U.S. is going to have any real effect on whether people–in the U.S. or abroad–steal movies, music and books. That ship has sailed and it’s not returning to port anytime soon. The network of underground sites that traffic in pirated movies and music wouldn’t disappear, it would simply adapt.
But that’s not something that the lawmakers in Washington understand. The depth of their lack of understanding of how the Internet works is simply breathtaking. It appears that they may be working from a diagram of the Web drawn on a cocktail napkin by a lobbyist sometime in 1993.
The clearest example is the provision in SOPA that would require ISPs to prevent the domain name of an allegedly infringing site from resolving to its proper IP address.
“A service provider shall take technically feasible and reasonable measures designed to prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States to the foreign infringing site (or portion thereof) that is subject to the order, including measures designed to prevent the domain name of the foreign infringing site (or portion thereof) from resolving to that domain name’s Internet Protocol address,” the section of SOPA reads.
That section has drawn criticism from security and networking experts who have rightly pointed out that it will likely have a host of unintended consequences, none of them good. In a letter sent to Congress in December, a large group of Internet pioneers and other experts said that SOPA and PIPA, its sister bill in the Senate, would have deleterious effects on the Web and its security and stability.
“When we designed the Internet the first time, our priorities were reliability, robustness and minimizing central points of failure or control. We are alarmed that Congress is so close to mandating censorship-compliance as a design requirement for new Internet innovations. This can only damage the security of the network, and give authoritarian governments more power over what their citizens can read and publish,” they wrote.
In an analysis of the issue, Katitza Rodriguez of the EFF went further.
“Finally, the DNS blocking contemplated by these bills would undermine the usability of the DNSSEC security measures that are meant to authenticate domains and deter tampering with the DNS system. The reliability and integrity of the DNS is an important part of OECD’s aim of promoting Internet security, to which the United States is supposed to be committed,” Rodriguez wrote.
Rep. Lamarr Smith, the main sponsor of SOPA, said recently that he will consider removing the DNS-blocking provision in the bill pending further examination of its implications. That’s a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t come close to solving all of the problems with SOPA and PIPA. The fact still remains that the logic behind the bills doesn’t hold and that foreign sites that may be hosting copyright-infringing content are unlikely to pay one bit of attention to it.
Nor should any of us have to.