Who Really Engaged in Misinformation?

In a blatant act of hypocrisy, Cary Sherman the chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), as well as his allies, are claiming that the public was misinformed about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP (PIPA) when they opposed those bills.  As Sherman said, “misinformation may be a dirty trick, but it works.”  His organization would know given that for more than a year the RIAA, Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and other pro-SOPA and pro-PIPA allies actively engaged in misinforming Congress on the implications of the SOPA and PIPA.  

Take for example the misinformation campaign by the RIAA and MPAA on the Domain Name Server (DNS) filter provisions in SOPA and PIPA.  Both bills contained provisions that would require broadband companies to filter DNS traffic to websites that a court would order “blocked.”  I say “blocked” because filtering DNS traffic does not take content off the Internet, nor does it stop an individual from spending the 5 seconds it would take to bypass the filter by migrating to a foreign DNS server.  It does however make networks significantly less secure and more vulnerable to hackers and cyber criminals (hence the “break the Internet” meme).  This finding is shared by more than 140 Internet engineers (including the Internet’s original architects and leading cyber security experts), several think tanks, private companies, and public sector entities operating DNS servers.  

Public Knowledge and the Center for Democracy & Technology worked hard to untangle the misinformation campaign they waged in favor of DNS filtering on Capitol Hill.  We had to because frequently throughout 2011 these trade groups representing some of the most powerful companies in the world, actively tried to exploit the lack of technological expertise inherent in Congress.  Behind closed doors in private meetings and in open session with your Members of Congress, the groups’ representatives claimed that opposition by experts was just the “Google crowd” and were completely unfounded.  This “Google crowd” would consist of people like former Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Stewart Baker, the National Sandia Labs, and a lot of the human rights community just to name a few (for the full list, click here).

During the legislative hearing on SOPA, House Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairman on Cybersecurity Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) questioned MPAA Exec. Vice President Michael O’Leary about the cybersecurity problem.  In response he received the standard misinformation campaign line of there was no cybersecurity problem and that this type of activity “occurred all the time.”  To bolster their misinformation campaign, the content lobby worked hard to manufacture the “truth” by highlighting the work of the very small number of individuals (a grand total of three) who wrote “technical rebuttals.”  These were not so much rebuttals as they were well orchestrated advocacy pieces that ignored the engineering and distorted the studies they utilized in order to dupe Members of Congress to believe the legitimate concerns were in fact unsupported.

Part of the RIAA and MPAA misinformation campaign centered on the argument that DNS filtering and secure networks (DNSSEC) could both exist in the same network.  This was despite the fact that top experts in the field provided an extensive explanation why that would not be technologically possible (a couple of these individuals actually saved the Internet in the past).  In the end, when Comcast (a SOPA supporter) announced they had to shut down anything that filters DNS traffic when they activated DNSSEC and the White House Cybersecurity Coordinator stated that the bills “pose a real risk to cybersecurity,” the jig was up.

Lastly, claiming that censorship concerns in regards to DNS filtering were misplaced completely ignores the fact that SOPA and PIPA moved America closer to censorship oriented regimes.  If these bills were enacted into law, American broadband providers would have been required to install the same filtering technology used in China, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Armenia, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Burma (Myanmar), Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.  This reality triggered the outpouring of opposition from the international human rights community who fight censorship overseas every day and point to the United States as the model.  Summing up the well informed reasoning behind their opposition, Julian Sanchez with the Cato Institute points out that enacting SOPA and PIPA would mean the “only difference between? the Unites States and China is what's on the blacklist.” 

The more than 14 million Americans who contacted their Congress knew what was in these bills.  If the MPAA and RIAA want to engage in a debate of who engaged in misinformation, I suggest they look internally before arguing that the public was too ignorant to understand SOPA and PIPA.  The truth of the matter is the public saved a misinformed Congress from itself.

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