For those of you that don’t follow tech news or American Politics, let alone the intersection of them, we’ve had some great news recently: the President of the USA, who has been barely sufficient on so many issues, has finally come out swinging on the side of free speech and innovation against the two twins of censorship, the Protect IP Act of the US Senate, and the House of Representatives’ “Stop Online Piracy Act.” He hasn’t outright threatened that the laws will get vetoed no matter what, but he’s implied that they’re heavily flawed and he can’t support them as-is. Hopefully he will expand on that and avoid the devils on his shoulder that so often prompt President Obama to compromise for the detriment of his country and the world.
While I oppose piracy in general, (as an amateur programmer I have a cat in this YouTube video, to switch up a popular metaphor) I think that to some degree it’s a necessary evil to allow us to have national sovereignty, freedom of speech, and innovation on the internet, and laws like SOPA and PIPA reinforce that impression. I also like to combat it or support people who fight it by investing their customers in the continued development and success of a product in the case of software. I can understand the film industry at least is unable to take a more creative approach here, simply due to the nature of their product. And so of course both of these bills have massive support from entertainment industries, with most of the push coming from large film makers, but there are also some technology traitors, including the ESA and several domain registry companies. (I recall GoDaddy was on this list for a while, who you should already be switching away from if you use, because they are a terrible company for other reasons)
What SOPA and PIPA propose, essentially, is that the government be allowed to censor any site containing pirated material with extreme prejudice, stripping away their DNS, (the ability of you to reach their site with a .com address the way everyone normally uses the internet, as opposed to entering an IP number you had bookmarked) and then heaping on an extra helping of economic sanctions, barring advertisers in the USA from using those sites, and cutting off payments through online services like Paypal, much like was done to Wikileaks through right-wing pressure. It gets worse from here, but I’ve already told you enough that you should see the core of the problem.
The US government having an infrastructure to censor the internet is an incredibly scary proposition. It’s this whole notion of building walls and fences again, but in the name of profits for movie tycoons, the USA would be doing it with information, effectively putting them in a position where they could become the thought police, or at least shut down independent media, after it only just started up again with podcasts, YouTube videos, and blogs.
Let’s get into the truly Orwellian stuff: To be considered a pirate under these laws, you don’t have to host a significant amount of pirated material. (There’s an amendment to PIPA that redefines the law down to that, which would make it merely objectionable as opposed to horrendous) You don’t even need to have someone uploading pirated data to a video or file sharing site that you’ve missed. You don’t even need to, personally, write a link to a site with pirated material. No, it’s much easier than that. You can simply fail to take down a link in a comment to a site that may contain a single, obscure pirated file somewhere.
SOPA and PIPA consider site owners responsible for what their users post. All a big business needs to do is continuously post links to pirated content until they flood the ability of the site to moderate their comments, and tip off the rights holders to get their competitors embargoed and censored. This is taking that childhood game of “stop punching yourself!” to a whole new level. It is not exaggerating to say that this could kill the internet as we know it- under these laws, tech giants like Facebook and Google wouldn’t be able to get started.
Some major sites are still planning on going dark this Wednesday (US time, naturally) to raise awareness that these bills are still under consideration by the US congress. (congress temporarily backed off both of them previously due to public opposition) I thought it might make more sense to just talk about it in advance, as I’m running a blog and all. 🙂
edit: Wikipedia, one of the most searched sites on the internet, has agreed to join the blackout tommorow.