SOPA explained and why you should care

This Post Originally Appeared on The Connected Wire, click the link for more technology related stories!

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is passing through congress and has the potential to completely change the internet.   While the name implies good intentions, it is a misguided bill that stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the internet works and is the result of millions of lobbying dollars from huge corporations including the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, Viacom along with other large content creators.  This bill, if passed, could drastically harm the internet and give too much power to content creators to take down websites without due process.

The Goal

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  First, lets address what the bill wants to do, which is stop piracy on the internet.   Obviously this is a problem online and the content creators want, and have the right, to  protect their content.  This is exactly what the aim of this bill is; to protect content creators and allow them to make money off of their work.  However, though the goal is a good one, the execution is very, very bad.   The language of the bill is vague enough to affect more than just the bad guys stealing content.  The bill could affect website that you and I use everyday; sites like Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, or Google.  The idea is to block sites that “engage in, enable or facilitate” copyright infringement.

Ok…

So we are blocking access to the sites of online pirates only right? Wrong.

The act doesn’t require concrete evidence of copyright infringement before the site is taken down, all it requires is a claim from the copyright holder.  They don’t need to confront a judge or even step foot in a courtroom and they can have a site taken down and block all credit card payments.  They would be required to stop service to the website immediately after a claim is received and only a counter notification from the website could reverse this.

There are many similarities between this act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which gave copyright holders the right to request that a specific piece of content be taken off of a website.  However, now they can off all advertising revenue and even have the site itself shut down until the content is removed.

How it Works

Once a site is identified as allegedly violating copyright, the DNS for the website gets blocked.  The DNS is what translates the IP address to a readable domain name.  For example, Google’s IP address is 74.125.225.16, and if you can navigate to the website just by using the IP address.  However, you don’t want to have to remember a string of numbers for each website you want to visit, it is much easier to remember a name, like Google.  This is where DNS comes in.  DNS stands for Domain Name System, and translates a domain name to the IP address, which is what actually takes you to a website.  You can think of the IP address like a phone number, and the domain name as what you have the contact named in your phone.

So if the DNS is blocked for The Connected Wire, no one would be able to access the site unless you knew the IP address.  However, since many domains are shared on a server, the DNS is also what directs the IP the correct site.  For example the IP address for this site is173.193.63.131, but if you try to find the site using that, you will just reach a page from my hosting provider since it doesn’t know which site is the correct one.

This means if a company decides to have my site blocked, it will be impossible to access it and all it would be is my word versus the content company’s.  Once a company files a suit to have a site or payment blocked, they company providing the service has five days to oblige, and the alleged offended has this time to file a counter notification, which doesn’t have to be accepted by the service provider.  This is because they have immunity as long as they have “reasonable belief” that the site is violating copyright.   This also means that sites previously deemed legal for hosting content, like YouTube which isn’t responsible for the content its’ users put online, could be affected by this act.

Potential Ramifications

Apart from the obvious effects of blocking access to websites and violating the open culture of the internet, without even having a court order, SOPA could actually harm the internet itself.  It could render the Internet less secure and less stable.  Instead of attempting to explain it myself, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), had a great explanation.

All censorship schemes impact speech beyond the category they were intended to restrict, but this bill will be particularly egregious in that regard because it causes entire domains to vanish from the Web, not just infringing pages or files. Worse, an incredible range of useful, law-abiding sites can be blacklisted under this bill. These problems will be enough to ensure that alternative name-lookup infrastructures will come into widespread use, outside the control of US service providers but easily used by American citizens. Errors and divergences will appear between these new services and the current global DNS, and contradictory addresses will confuse browsers and frustrate the people using them. These problems will be widespread and will affect sites other than those blacklisted by the American government.

What You Can Do

Presently there is a large host of internet companies fighting SOPA, including Google, Reddit, Kickstarter, Tumblr, Mozilla, Yahoo, AOL, Facebook and Twitter, but you can also help.  First and foremost, call your congressperson, or visit the American Censorship Day web site and send them a letter.  If they receive a large amount of potential voters complaining abut an issue, they will vote the way you want. Secondly, spread the word! Tell other people about this bill and the potential harm it could have.  The people control the government, and we can stop this bill from being passed.

[via LifehackerEFF(1), (2)Ars Technica]

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