Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Let's Talk About #SOPA, Baby

If you tried to consult Wikipedia today to find out exactly what Beyonce's original skin tone was, you were probably met with this: 

Wikipedia, along with many other members of the internet industry have blacked out their websites to simulate an internet that has been laid bare by the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and its policy predecessor, the Protect IP Act, or PIPA (which actually stands for: The Preventing Real Online Threats To Economic Creativity and Threat of Intellectual Property Act of 2011.)

I've been on Twitter most of the day, and I'm realizing that a lot of people have no idea what these acts really mean for them. SOPA and PIPA have a noble goal in the same sense that Gene Marks did, and like Gene Marks, the acts fail in execution. Violating copyright laws is definitely a crime, and passing law that modify or extend the reach of existing measures is, in may ways, an acceptable solution IF EXECUTED PROPERLY. 

However, SOPA and PIPA aren't going to function by making the MASTER HAND OF THE INTERNET slap you in the face every time you try and watch porn or google an album title, slip, and type "mediafire" after it. 

Let's talk about how these acts really work. 

SOPA versus PIPA:

SOPA is different from PIPA in that SOPA has a direct effect on the internet we all see. PIPA targets internet domain name providers, ad services, and, most importantly, any site that has very little use beyond copyright infringement. These sites are usually "Nondomestic" (located outside of the U.S.), and dedicated to hosting unauthorized content and trading in counterfeit goods. Both bills give the U.S. Department of Justice the ability to track down and essentially kill the platform hosting the illegal content. Financial providers, advertising providers, and other folks that work with these sites are warned to cut ties and run, or face similar punishment.  

SOPA does it similarly: Section 102 of SOPA states:
 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...Such actions shall be taken as expeditiously as possible, but in any case within five days after being served with a copy of the order, or within such time as the court may order.
This happens by a site scrubbing links to content, and, more importantly, removal of content provider's ability to do business on the internet because of hosting content. It has a theoretical connection to PIPA. Like PIPA, everyone affiliated (financial partners, ad sites/providers) can be hit hard. If everyone's hit hard, they back away from the site. If the site has no partners and cant generate revenue, it dies. In essence, SOPA's a modern day blacklist for websites.

While more narrow in its scope, PIPA's, and by extension of similarity, SOPA fail by virtue of the fact that sites that accept user-generated content have limited control over what its users contribute to the site. Yes, you can upload all the tracks to that new Gucci Mane album on YouTube. And YouTube will send you a nice little "Please Don't Do That, It Hurts The Artist's Feelings" email to let you know that you dun goofed

The thing is, other provisions, most notably the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, exist to track and punish the individual that commits the infringement of copyright. Aside from this, SOPA and PIPA actually don't provide provisions to remove copyrighted material, and instead targets links to entire domains. So, uhhh, what's the point of this, then?

How SOPA Hurts The Internet:

The issue that really takes the legs from under SOPA, at least in the eyes of supporters, is the vague language and definitions. From Jason Harvey, of Reddit:
The concept of 'domestic' versus 'foreign' on the internet is complex. For example, reddit's primary servers are located in Virginia, however we have domain names through foreign registrars (, The site is hosted via a third-party content-delivery network (Akamai). This means that if you connect to reddit from a foreign country, you are likely connecting to an Akamai server not located in the U.S. This legislation naively ignores this complexity, and simply labels a site 'foreign' or 'domestic' based solely on the domain name.

The legislators sponsoring these bills have indicated that they are only targeted at truly foreign sites. However, the language is so loose and ignorant of what is truly a foreign site that there is a huge amount of room to argue what is actually "foreign".
How it normally works: Copyrighted content is noticed, and a polite DMCA request is submitted that asks that the site remove all copyrighted content. This is why YouTube sends you the email, to notify you that your content has been flagged. Then, the site has a certain amount of time to take down the material. If you feel like your stuff isn't violating anything, you can dispute. If the site doesn't take down the content, they get in trouble. 

The reason why this sucks is that websites and online communities, especially user content heavy sites, would have to dedicate a lot of their infrastructure to watching for links to questionable content, removing links to questionable content, and preventing these links from coming back. Since the definitions of things in the laws are really vague, almost anything can be considered a violation of copyright law. Want that new tutorial on Marvel vs. Capcom 3? Better hope neither Marvel nor Capcom decides to be a dick and flag all the tutorial videos as infringing. An entire site, like YouTube, could be shut down indefinitely because of that one video. 

This also hampers the thing that makes the internet awesome: free and open exchange of information and ideas. It essentially places the powers of exchange in the hands of the regulatory agencies and the government. 

The kicker: Pirates make a living working around measures designed to hamper or block them. It's inevitable. A site will spend a lot of resources scrubbing links to Rise of Planet of The Apes on Friday night, only to have NEW LINKS pop up Saturday Morning. 

A Senate Judiciary Committee has approved PIPA. It goes up for a full senate vote on January 24th, but faces opposition from Ron Wyden (D-OR). SOPA is expected to be approved when Congress reconvenes, as supporters of the bill hold a majority. President Obama has released a statement that shows him and his administration in opposition of the parts of the bills that lobotomize the internet.  

You can fight, too. Everyone is fighting this provision, including Google

SOPA and PIPA aren't awesome things for the internet, even though their intents are fairly reasonable. You must contact your representatives and let them know that you do not support this draconian piece of legislature. 

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