This year, all I want for Christmas is an open Internet. I’m looking at you, Congress.
Normally I’d just ask for an iPad. It’s not like I haven’t been drooling over that page on the Apple website for quite a while. Or maybe a new smartphone, since I may or may not have dropped mine on the treadmill earlier this week and done irreparable damage. Or, hey, maybe a new camera. Mine’s going on seven years old, and it’s getting harder to take photos or videos that anyone wants to see.
Normally, I’d assume that the open Internet would be there, so that I could share my videos on YouTube, my photos on Facebook, tweet an interesting story, or do a simple Google search using any of those shiny new gadgets.
But the original version of the so-called Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA for short), currently in the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, along with the accompanying Protect IP bill in the Senate (introduced by Vermont’s very own Sen. Patrick Leahy, along with 40 cosponsors), could change all that.
On its surface, the bill is designed to target web-based piracy that undercuts American businesses by targeting websites that host copyright-infringing videos and music or sell knockoff Coach bags. Virtually all major media outlets, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture Association of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are behind the bill, with the hopes that plugging the Internet-based leaks will return profit to industries that have seen decreased revenues due to online privacy.
The opposition includes Google, Facebook, the Electonic Frontier Foundation, Mozilla and Wikipedia, and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which say that attempting to block websites that offer pirated goods and content could unfairly target legitimate websites and web-based companies. They say it would force search engines to block certain websites from showing up in results, require Internet service providers (ISPs) to deny customers access to certain sites (instead redirecting browsers to anti-piracy informational sites) and force sites with copyrighted content to take offending content down.
The bill’s intention is primarily to target foreign-based websites whose owners and users don’t come under the jurisdiction of U.S. law, instead circumventing access to those sites. Opponents argue that the bill’s approach boils down to Internet censorship, akin to that of China and Iran.
Granted, further amendments in the Senate do attempt to fine-tune the bill’s language to clarify that it isn’t aimed at U.S.-based sites like YouTube and Facebook, which for the most part already have copyright protection systems in place. Whereas the original bill would have enabled the blacklisting of sites with virtually no third-party review, the amendment also assigns the U.S. International Trade Commission to serve as an unbiased third party in adjudicating copyright infringement claims.
Still, as Wired magazine reports, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., still had concerns about the proposed implementation of the bill during the ongoing markup session last week, especially the provisions that would force ISPs to block access to websites.
“We never tried to filter the telephone networks to block illegal content on the telephone network, yet that is precisely what this legislation would do relative to the Internet,” she said.
And as Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet law at Harvard University, points out on his blog, many of the definitions in the bill and its amendments could pose a technological nightmare.
For example, the SOPA definition of a foreign website is one that uses a foreign-based registrar for its domain. But on a platform as globalized as the Internet, it’s not just so-called “foreign” websites using overseas domain names — it’s a whole lot of U.S.-based websites as well.
Last week, more than 80 prominent Internet architects — including many who have made the Internet what it is today — released an open letter to Congress. In it they cautioned that the broad-based SOPA approach poses a dire threat to the Internet’s basic functionality by forcing ISPs to modify their website records, undercutting the system that forms the basis of the Internet and altering the tokens built into the domain name system that allow a browser to identify whether a site poses a security risk.
“Both bills will risk fragmenting the Internet’s global domain name system and have other capricious technical consequences,” said the letter. “An incredible range of useful, law-abiding sites can be blacklisted under these proposals ... all censorship schemes impact speech beyond the category they were intended to restrict, but these bills are particularly egregious in that regard because they cause entire domains to vanish from the Web, not just infringing pages or files.”
It should also be noted that while the House committee so far has heard testimony from many of the industry leaders who are outspoken proponents of the bill, no voices from the technology field — the ones who can explain exactly how the bill’s stipulations would play out, on a technical level — have testified.
And if there’s one thing we can take away from last week’s Judiciary Committee meetings, which will resume in January, it’s that none of the lawmakers debating the bill’s merits have the technical understanding of how the Internet works. I’m not exaggerating: Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post reported last week that the vast majority of committee members have openly admitted to just that. “I’m not a nerd, but...” has been a common refrain in the course of discussion of the bill.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that those who upload copyrighted content shouldn’t be punished. My dad’s a composer, and I would love for him to have those royalties from album sales.
I’m saying that the censorship approach is all wrong. While the U.S. government keeps telling China it’s a fan of a free and open Internet and then turn around and force American ISPs to censor Internet access for its own citizens.
Legal jurisdiction on the Internet is something that needs to be clarified, discussed and carefully weighed. That’s what needs honest, straightforward and unbiased discussion: How do we manage security and crime on the Internet without inhibiting free speech?
It’s a fundamental question, and one that needs clarification before going forward.
So if it’s not too much to ask, Congress, I’d really appreciate it if we could discuss this before jumping into anything big.
Oh, and just one other small request for my Christmas list: Would you please, please stop acting like being a nerd is a bad thing?
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.