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Avast! SOPA a threat to free speech

Stop Online Piracy Act a bigger threat to your free speech than it is to any pirates

Thanks to

When I first heard talk of SOPA, of course I thought of Mexican food. But the more I've learned about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) working its way through Congress, the more of a bad taste it leaves.

On name alone, the legislation should pass easily. What publisher would condone piracy and oppose efforts to fight rogue websites trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property?

These are fair questions, especially for companies like Noozhawk and TucsonSentinel.com that have trademarked their brands, copyright their original content, and take steps to ensure that material posted on their sites complies with carefully crafted, lawyer-drafted Terms of Service.

But the larger issues here are free expression, censorship and First Amendment rights, coupled with changes to Internet protocols that are geek to most of us but, in fact, are at the very heart of our identity on the World Wide Web.

SOPA started out as a way to protect intellectual property and the financial and economic juggernaut that goes along with it. In defiance of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, there's an evil empire of black-arts practitioners preying on American companies, especially those in Hollywood. Many of these thieves are located in foreign countries — well beyond the reach of the enforcers of U.S. copyright law.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, proposed a bill to allow the Justice Department and copyright holders to strike back at websites that are even unwittingly connected to the offending source. Somebody's got to pay if the overseas bills are ignored, right?

Once notified, targeted sites would have five days — 120 hours — to submit an appeal. Under the legislation, if the response is unsatisfactory, the federal government is authorized to:

  • Cut off the sites from search engines like Google and Yahoo!
  • Require Internet service providers like Cox, Impulse and Verizon to block their customers from accessing the sites
  • Bar the sites from interacting with their advertisers and ad networks like Google AdSense
  • Prohibit the sites from using payment providers like PayPal

How long can a website last with no traffic and no revenue? I know that answer, and it's not one I wish to contemplate.

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But enough about the effects on local independent news sites like the one you're reading. What's in it for you?

Censorship

The legislation allows for the blocking of entire Web sites for "promoting" copyright infringement, even if it's through something as insignificant as a link in a user comment on a story. The death penalty apparently is administered regardless of the presence of constitutionally protected and clearly non-infringing speech like ads, commentary and search results.

"The First Amendment requires that the government proceed with a scalpel — by prosecuting those who break the law — rather than with the sledgehammer approach of SOPA, which would silence speech across the board," Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe wrote in opposing the bill.

Maybe you use email, Craigslist, eBay, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Vimeo. I know you would never, ever link to or forward something whose provenance you weren't 100 percent sure of; it's your brother-in-law who does that.

But with hundreds of millions of users of their services, do you think those companies will trust you if their bottoms are on the line? In all likelihood, they'll begin monitoring and/or restricting everything you do to prevent the possibility of being sued over copyright infringement or liability for criminal charges.

Disruption

Every computer on the Internet is identified by a complicated string of unique numbers, but the Domain Name System registry converts the numbers into more recognizable and memorable Web site domains, like Noozhawk.com. SOPA contains a controversial filtering mandate that would allow editing of the DNS, however.

How is that harmful? Engineers have been developing a new DNS protocol to combat the increasingly common hijacking of a user's browsing command that redirects the user to a phony website with the DNS of a trusted domain. What's more, the Internet is inherently decentralized, which makes it an environment conducive to coders intent on writing their way around the roadblocks so those black-listed foreign websites can still be reached.

Fulfilling the law of unintended consequences, SOPA's filtering requirements would torpedo the new authentication process while doing nothing to alleviate Web security risks.

Expense

The increased monitoring and analysis that SOPA requires will pose a significant financial burden, with a negative toll on Internet innovation and investment. You'll pay for that now as well as later.

The escalating risk will most certainly mean fewer Internet startups and less Web development. Don't get too comfortable using tools like Dropbox, Flickr, Scribd, Shutterfly or Storify. Or resources like Flipboard, Google Docs, Wikipedia and WordPress. Or try to get your head around the concept of cloud computing.

So, what can you do? It's all about Congress at this point. Join me in contacting our respective elected representatives — yours are U.S. Reps. Gabrielle Giffords or Raul Grijalva, and U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl — and asking them to help us defeat this ridiculous legislation.

You should also contact Rep. Smith and the House Judiciary Committee, which is to resume deliberations on SOPA (H.R. 3261) in January.

I can think of 50 things that Congress and the Obama administration could do today to clear the path for economic growth in this chronic recession. "Fixing" the Internet isn't one of them.

You can read more about SOPA from the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose mission is to defend free speech, privacy, innovation and consumer rights in the digital world.

Bill Macfadyen is the publisher of Noozhawk, an independent local news site in Santa Barbara, Calif. He can be reached at wmacfadyen@noozhawk.com.

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1 comment on this story

1
1508 comments
Dec 27, 2011, 10:14 am
-0 +3

Excellent piece.

As to what you ask me to do…I already contacted my absentee congresswoman and my two Senators, and sent them the following letter (edited to say either SOPA or PROTECT IP act) which sums up succinctly how I feel…

Hello,

My name is Bret Linden. I am a constituent living in AZ CD8.

I am writing to inform you that I strongly oppose the “Stop Online Piracy Act”, otherwise known as HR 3261.

Were this bill to become law, it would place an unwarranted burden on law-abiding sites we count on in our daily lives, such as Google and Facebook. It would deprive law-abiding internet users of liberties they currently enjoy. It would make it far too easy for the DOJ to circumvent the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment. In short, it would irreparably harm the very structure of the internet as we know it.

Please take every action within your power to prevent this bill from becoming law.

Sincerely,

Bret Linden

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It’s not a skull and crossbones that strikes fear in the heart of the Internet community, it’s the meddling of lawmakers who would destroy it to save a handful of industries threatened by pirates.

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