Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: America is considering following China’s lead and debating over new legislation that will give the US government power to block websites at will. Now before you throw out poorly researched Nineteen Eighty-Four references that would make Orwell rise from the dead just to slap you, read these words very carefully: this is not an attempt to quash free speech. At least, that’s not what this bill pertains to, but the implications of it are far-reaching and, as much as I hate to dust off a journalistic chestnut, the Orwellian censorship scenario is not impossible.
The ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ (SOPA) is ostensibly a measure being brought in to stamp out piracy, copyright infringement and theft of intellectual property. The problem is, as I will come to explain, the measures they want to implement in order to do so seem, to my computer scientist nouse, like overkill. In a nutshell, the bill extends the definition of illegal file-sharing to include sites that provide links to third-party sites that host copyrighted video, images and the like. Previously, these sites were protected on the basis that they themselves didn’t deliver the material and simply acted as a middleman between the users and the files, usually hosted on open file-sharing sites like Megaupload and Rapidshare; though this rule did not prevent the conviction of the founders of The Pirate Bay in 2009. For any of these sites in the US, a court order can be brought against them that would obligate them to cease all illegal activities. However, so-called ‘rogue sites’ that operate in other countries are, by definition, outside of US jurisdiction and thus requesting a court order would be an ineffectual (and poorly thought-out) action. Though the US is powerless to stop these sites, the new legislation will make it possible for copyright holders to request, and give the government the power to ensure, that all access to the site within the US be blocked through removing it from DNS servers.
DNS (Domain Name System) servers contain what is essentially a list of every registered domain on the Internet, there are many DNS servers across the world that contain identical lists. It is the first port of call for your web browser when you type in a website address as it matches the domain name you’ve entered to the IP address where the webpage itself is held. Under this new bill, websites found to be in violation of this can be removed from all American DNS listings or blocked from resolving, just as the so-called ‘Great Firewall of China’. Technically speaking, a DNS block is not a difficult thing to circumvent, but doing so requires a small degree of technical know-how (or an impressive memory for IP addresses) and would constitute a criminal offence.
Unsurprisingly, this bill has the full support of a myriad of film and television groups, for whom money made from selling pieces of plastic or downloads for extortionate prices is their living. I’m certainly not trying to say that these people don’t deserve to be paid for their good work, but that’s the point: their good work. Through piracy, I discovered the early episodes of The Big Bang Theory and become an instant fan; I pirate episodes because I don’t want to wait for their episodes to be shipped over here and clunkily strapped into 4oD, but I own every available season on DVD. Similarly, through piracy I caught the first few episodes of True Blood, found it to be incredibly trite and haven’t bothered with it at all since. I, as the consumer, shouldn’t be expected to sink cold, hard cash into shows that are utter tosh just for the sake of finding that out.
Opposed to the bill is practically every Internet company you could name. As the legislation also requires US companies to cease any advertising networks with that site (such as via Google’s Adsense program), strike them from search engines and exact what basically amounts to a cyber-blockade upon them. This represents a lot of cost, legal concerns and work for these companies solely to protect the interests of another industry. In a letter to the US Senate and House of Representatives, companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and others wrote that the bill is “a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job creation, as well as to our nation’s cybersecurity.”
Bloggers, owners of independent websites and other Web users are understandably also opposing the bill. Video-sharing site YouTube has something of a trigger-happy attitude when it comes to claims of copyright infringement, wherein the offending video is automatically taken down until the uploader (the accused, not the accuser) has proven either legal right to the footage or show that copyrighted material has been used in conjunction with the ‘Fair Use’ clause of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. In most cases, use of copyrighted material can be justified if clips are used for the purposes of comment or criticism. Independent sites that reviews films, for example, may use clips from the source material spliced in. Though this would fall under ‘Fair Use’, if a similar “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude is adopted whenever a film studio cries wolf, it could lead to exhaustive legal battles, massive financial impact and loss of livelihood. Yet, the film studio will lose nothing from making a claim, the defendant stands to lose a great deal even if innocent. If YouTube, in order to keep the film industry lawyers at bay, will enforce a policy of ‘guilty until proven innocent’, then how can independents hope to grow or compete if this is the attitude of the governance in the Internet at large?
The film and television industries persist in their failure to understand that one pirated movie does not equate to one lost sale. The Internet has introduced a system of try-before-you-buy, in which the consumer can see if the show or movie is actually worth investing in. In the Information Age, their business model is antiquated and should be subject to the adapt-or-die rule, but due to the amount of money this industry has, the powers that be are bending over backwards to appease it. They must realise that piracy actively helps their industry, it encourages people to watch new shows that they may’ve missed on television, potentially become a fan and buy more episodes, DVDs and whatever cheap merchandising has been squeezed out of the show. What’s more, it creates competition and sets the bar higher for quality, as the show now has to sell itself to an audience with far more choice
If you want to extrapolate the idea of a Government having the power to block websites further, you inevitably face the prospect that this bill may be the first nail in the coffin of free speech on the Internet. This bill will set a precedence that says it’s fine for governments to block websites for any contrived reason when the one with the most money says it should. We cannot allow this, the line must be drawn.