The Internet Dodges the SOPA Bullet—For Now

Those who seek control will not give up easily.

Last week the acronyms SOPA and PIPA were unheard of, much less decipherable, by most people. Yet the other day a groundswell of opposition to them, led by Wikipedia, Google, and other Internet entities, was powerful enough to persuade a significant number of members of Congress to abandon their active or tacit support for those things. The juggernaut heading toward greater government control over the Internet met massive resistance and will now have to undergo renovation to regain its momentum.

We may be certain that those who seek this control will not give up easily.

By now most people know that SOPA is (was) the Stop Online Piracy Act and PIPA the Protect Intellectual Property Act, the former introduced in the House, the latter in the Senate.

They may sound innocuous, though we have enough experience with government to know that nothing about it should be assumed to be innocuous. Hidden powers and unintended consequences lurk in everything it does, regardless of intentions. (And, let’s say it, we can’t count on  intentions of the high caliber.) So even if “stopping online piracy” and “protecting intellectual property” sound good to you, a healthy dose of skepticism is in order.

Foreign Websites

The bills are directed at foreign websites that allegedly provide or “facilitate” the provision of copyrighted material without permission. The bills’ reference to foreign sites comforts some people, but it shouldn’t. The Department of Homeland Security already has the power to shut down domestic websites by seizing their domain names—and has done so many times. (Try going to this site. ) As this was written news came in that the government has moved against the file-sharing site Megaupload.com, which is based in Hong Kong but uses servers in the United States.

The U.S. government has a more difficult time, or so it is said, with fully foreign sites, so the powerful movie and music industries (among others) want it to have the power to do the next best thing: force search engines (like Google), payment services (like PayPal), and Internet service providers (ISPs) to stop you from visiting and dealing with those sites. (The U.S. government apparently doesn’t need SOPA to pursue alleged foreign offenders. It is extraditing a British student for “running a website posting links to pirated TV shows and films, despite significant doubts over whether such sites break any UK laws.” The student uses no American servers and has never been to the United States.)

The prospect of these new powers outrages those who value the openness of the Internet and fear the inevitable chilling effects of government authority in the area of free expression. The idea that the government could force American companies to prevent you and me from accessing foreign websites violates the spirit of the Internet. That’s why the protest took place Wednesday, featuring the self-suspension of Wikipedia and other gestures of opposition to the looming interference.

Copyright Legitimacy

There are two issues here, of course: the reasonableness of the proposed remedy and the legitimacy of copyright itself. I’ll largely restrict my remarks to the first, since I have discussed intellectual property (IP) elsewhere (here, here, and most recently here.)

One need not oppose IP to be concerned with SOPA and PIPA. Any authorization of power will contain vague language giving the government wiggle room and therefore discretion in whom it targets and why. A site might be blocked—and search-engines, payment-services, and ISP harassed—because a visitor posted something said to be protected by copyright. And what might happen to one of these domestic companies if it were deemed lax in monitoring sites that facilitate access to the wrong content? We should assume that such a law would be construed in the broadest way, considering the clout of the companies that lobbied for it. Laws, like constitutions, cannot interpret themselves.

New York Times tech columnist David Pogue sounds slightly naïve when he writes, “[T]he solution is to work on the language of the bills to rule out the sorts of abuses that the big Web sites fear.” He clearly mistakes the government for a disinterested dispenser of justice.

Joshua Topolsky illustrates the potential danger:

Say a French company just started a social networking site in which users can upload videos of themselves singing. Now let’s say some kids upload a video of themselves singing their favorite Britney Spears song, not even playing back the original recording but simply singing along innocently to a song they like.

In the eyes of Spears’s record label or any number of parties associated with her continued cash flow, that might very well look like an instance of piracy—and indeed, major labels have had content pulled off YouTube for similar “violations.” All the label has to do is send a letter to someone such as your ISP and request that the service stop routing traffic to the offending site, and, boom, no more French-sharing site for U.S. Internet users. And what’s really scary is that U.S. Internet service providers have immunity when it comes to what they can pull from their networks, so that French site might not even have a clear path to resolving the issue.

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  • Sparky||

  • Mr. FIFY||

    "Government is no friend to internet freedom"

    There, that's more accurate.

  • No shit. Gambol Lockdown.||

    Every fucking self-styled "Fibertarian" is for gambol lockdown.

    Go figure.

  • Yawn.||

  • Jerryskids||

    We all know neither Google nor government is a friend of internet freedom. Government just naturally hates freedom altogether, Google hates freedom for anybody but Google.

  • Ghost ||

    Every group of people hates freedom for everybody but themselves. Seen those Anon skiddies who preach how wonderful the "openness and transparency" of privacy-smashing Wikileaks is and how they use malware that they couldn't design or program to bring down businesses who won't agree with them?

  • BakedPenguin||

    Ugh. Remember "don't be evil"? Apparently not.

  • No shit. Gambol Lockdown.||

    Evil Fibertarian Gambol Lockdown.

  • ||

    Gambol Lockdown is the most insidious oppression. Either you pay rent or buy property with a legal tax address, or we declare you homeless and a terrorist. The world is now an endless death march and concentration camp for you unless you submit to the diktats of the UN Alphabet Mafia.

  • Joe M||

    Great piece, but it's the author is a member of Americans for Prosperity.

    Kochtopus strikes again!

  • No shit. Gambol Lockdown.||

    KOCHsucker strikes again for the hierarchical elite.

    Go figure.

  • Yawn.||

  • Number 2 ||

    As a fellow commentator recently posted here, everyone is a Libertarian when it comes to regulation of they want to do.

  • Abbie Hoffman||

    Steal this website.

  • White Indian.||

    I do. Any day I want.

  • ||

    Yo, fellow anarchists, show of hands: which of you would be upset if "anonymous" hacked and shut down this site over displeasure derived from a Reason editorial? Acceptable protest? Free speech? Criminal behavior? I'm serious. Any serious replies?

  • 0x90||

    We don't need anonymous for that, we have a gamboler.

    But since you make a point of saying you're serious, two questions in reply: what right of yours would be infringed by anonymous attacking reason.com, which would not be similarly infringed by Reason not paying their hosting bill for a week? Does the cause of the outage affect your experience?

    On Reason's side, it's not as if they are unaware that by putting information out there, they run the risk of having people access it, potentially thousands of times more than would otherwise have been expected, in the event of an anonymous dos attack. Which would be a pain, though temporary, but regardless, they (Reason) would simply have to do the math, find out if it's worth the risk, and make whatever changes would be deemed necessary. It would not be the end of the world, at any rate.

    And besides, it's not exactly like attacking reason.com is attacking the seat of any real power. Unless you subscribe to the "libertarians are both nearly nonexistent, and simultaneously, responsible for all the world's ills" line, that is.

  • Gambol about plain and forest.||

    That's freedom.

    Not wanking to paid whores.

  • Yawn.||

  • Kevin Carson||

    I'd be upset.

    Unless Joe Biden and the FBI, at Reason's behest, had seized hundreds of other websites without due process, and done so at Reason's behest. Oh, yeah -- and the Feds had announced the raids from Reason's office.

    Then I'd say bring out the fucking LOIC.

  • Ghost ||

    I'd say bring out LOIC too. And then we could trace their IPs. Why don't any of these stupid skiddies do a bit of research before carrying out acts that could land them in jail for several years?

  • ||

    research is slow behind 7 proxies.

  • A. A. Wolk||

    I'd be all for shutting down you fucking Nazis.

  • Libertarians = Nazis||

    "I absolutely insist on protecting private property... we must encourage private initiative."

    Guess:

    (1) Koch
    (2) Hitler

    Come on, don't be bashful, Fibertards.

  • Rokk Krin||

    Coming from the person who would suck Lenin, Mao, and Stalin's crank, since you never seem to say anything about those "city statists.

    Your cry for gambol freedom would mean the deaths of billions and you know it. You and your kind are genocidal nuts. Given the opportunity, your kind would put Hitler, Stalin, Pot, and Mao to shame.

    You and your kind are no better than the jizz filled residue of a crackheads ass.

  • Yawn.||

  • The yawn is for...||

    ...Jason Godesky, posting under the fake name of "Libertarians = Nazis", among others.

  • Rokk Krin||

    Wow what a facist comment.

  • Amakudari||

  • killazontherun||

    Reason's future entertainment news correspondent made some noteworthy observations based on his run ins with the fascist rent seeking pigs at Fox:

    http://www.wwtdd.com/2012/01/a.....-websites/

    Giving us a glimpse as to what life will be like once SOPA and PIPA get passed, the federal government shut down megaupload.com today and charged 7 people connected to it with running an international criminal enterprise. In response, Anonymous shut down the websites for the Department of Justice, the MPAA, and the RIAA.

    At issue of course is SOPA and PIPA, which will give companies and the government the ability to shut down websites that are infringing on copyright. One of the many problems with this is that these companies will simply lie about what is or isn’t infringement if they don’t like what is being published.

    Here are two emails (one and two) from Fox saying I was infringing on their intellectual property for publishing pictures of Megan Fox and Anna Faris skinny dipping while filming ‘Jennifers Body’ and ‘What’s Your Number’. Megan Fox was at a lake in Vancouver. Faris was in Boston harbor. These were pictures of public figures in a public place, taken by a third party. You can’t do something in public and claim it’s private. Fox didn’t own these pictures, but they said they did simply because they didn’t want them to get out.

    Under SOPA, they could shut a website down, simply because they didn’t like what it was publishing. Having Megan Fox take her clothes off doesn’t constitute “intellectual property”. I assure you I thought of that long before ‘Jennifers Body’, and I have several hundred photshops to prove it.
  • Salmon||

    fascist rent seeking pigs

    Nobody here takes you seriously or cares. Which is strange, 'cause you're using all the correct keywords.

  • B. Thompson||

    So, Reason finally notices SOPA/PIPA. Glad you could join us, wish you'd come aboard sooner, hope you can actually stay with us until the next battle. Oh, and you didn't mention the anti-circumvention language: they took one of the worst features of the DMCA and grafted it into these new monstrosities.

  • Vichy||

    You can't expect much from Beltway Fake-Libertarians. Their whole existence is dependent on the Intellectual Property racket and the political wonk money that gets funneled to them out of D.C.

  • cynical||

    They might not have focused on it intensely (but then, they're not a tech site), but they have reported on it before this week.

  • Amakudari||

    So, Reason finally notices SOPA/PIPA.

    Uh.

  • ||

    This was all foretold in the movie Short Circuit. They don't want number 5 to be alive. The internet is supposed to kill, make dead, and disassemble individuality. Internet Poker, Napster, Wikileaks, Megaupload, all will be disassembled if we let them.

  • Coach Panto||

    Anonymous has a valid defense: Preventing A Great Leap Forward Towards Tyranny.

    The Game is Market, the players (MPAA, RIAA, etc) are cheating by using govt thugs to stack their teams. Fornicate their fix, says Anonymous, and I agree. Forn em. Forn em good.

    (I owe a royalty to Chairman Mao for that adaptation, so I'll defecate on his tomb when I visit Beijing)

    Stipulations:
    1. SOPA is a business genocide bill, giving arbitrary power to govt to shut down websites. The Final Solution for Independent Publishers of USER CONTENT (IP Law does not apply to the aggregator, but to the user).
    2. Anonymous uses sabotage to degrade businesses it doesn't aggree with. This is force, and per se is quite anti-libertarian.
    3. However, libertarian principles allow force in PROPORTIONAL defensive retaliation for unjust or tyrannical force.

    Main Argument: The government offices and businesses Anonymous attacked could be said to be in MASSIVE oligarchic collusion to degrade the internet, to the tune of 10's of billions of lost content value for millions of web publishers, in order to create a govt protected monopoly, using SOPA.

    If anything, by proportion, Anonymous's attacks were paltry retaliation for the threat SOPA posed, and still poses.

    In this case, Anonymous' attack is part of a just resistance against the encroachment of Tyranny. To the freedom fighters, HUZZAH!

  • LarryA||

    At least Anonymous wasn't accidentally starting Global Thermonuclear War.

  • Vichy||

    The problem with the 'protestors' is that most of them still believe in this criminal racket called 'intellectual property', probably because most of them are rich white intellectuals who hate the thought of getting a real job or in any way modifying their behavior to unfettered market conditions.

    As long as people accept nonsense like 'intellectual property' and 'limited government' they're basically crypto-Communists bitching about the consequences of what they ask for.

  • mr simple||

    Wow, it must be a troll weekend again. Did someone's mess run out or are people snowed in?

  • putra||

    I hate SOPA and support to Wikipedia

  • anon||

    Damnit, Wargames again?

  • pthorne||

    Why doesn't WalMart draft a bill that would require the US govt to post US Marshals in all of their stores? They need to do something to curb all the shoplifting.

  • pthorne||

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