Whatever you think of this post, don't bother sharing it on Reddit or researching it on Wikipedia today. Those two sites — along with many others – have gone dark Wednesday to protest a bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act.
"SOPA" aims at the real problem of massive copyright infringement at overseas sites operating beyond American courts' reach but grossly overshoots.
In its original form (PDF), this House bill would force Internet providers to stop routing users to foreign domain names accused of harboring infringement — with penalties for attempts to circumvent this domain-name-system filtering — and prohibit search engines from linking to them. SOPA would also require advertising and payment-processing services to cut off allegedly offending sites on a copyright holder's request (one remedy that, if a court had to authorize it first, might actually hurt overseas infringers). And it would prod sites hosting user-generated content into acting as copyright cops themselves.
A show trial of a hearing in which representatives all but bragged about their ignorance of the Internet was meant to grease the skids for this bill. But weeks of increasing opposition, including testimony from most of the authors of the Internet about the stability and security risks of DNS censorship, slowed SOPA. Last weekend, the White House announced its opposition, and sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) said he would yank its DNS-blocking provisions.
Mission accomplished? Nope. SOPA and PIPA proponents like Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) still want to bring those bills to a vote. And many organizations pushing these bills, including the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, still portray them as a vital defense of American workers opposed only by a few cranky computer geeks.
Tuesday, for example, the MPAA posted a head-scratching statement (PDF) calling the blackouts "an abuse of power."
That's one reason for a site's management to be angry enough about SOPA to black out its home page or, in Google's case, its logo. (Note that another freelance client of mine, the Consumer Electronics Association, joined the blackout.)
Another is the history behind SOPA. The entertainment industry has gotten its way in Washington for decades — longer copyright terms, harsher punishments for infringement, criminalizing attempts to circumvent "digital rights management" usage restrictions — while unsuccessfully trying to squelch such advances as the VCR and the MP3 player.
And every few years, its lobbyists have to push for something as outrageous as SOPA. My favorite example: a grotesque 2002 attempt at technological totalitarianism that would have put government-mandated DRM in pretty much anything with a computer chip. Yet the only lesson learned from these failures seems to be "try again later."
A third is the mindset behind this legislative overreach. For an undiluted taste of it, sample Rupert Murdoch's tweets. The News Corp. CEO has called SOPA opponents "Silicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy," labeled Google a "piracy leader" and called warnings about risks of DNS censorship "nonsense" because search engines block speech in some countries just fine. Those views may seem ridiculous, but I have heard more subtle, polite versions of them from more than one entertainment-industry lobbyist.
It looks like a healthy chunk of the Internet finally got fed up with this treatment. Good.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery