In April of last year I, like many millions of people, was engaged in reading Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, starting with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which is now being made into a film for the second time. (The Swedish version was fabulous; Hollywood's come out in December.)
I had read the first two and, unusual for me, wanted to buy the third one. But I wanted to buy it in paperback to read during my commute, and not in hardback. (OK, the paperback is cheaper. Sue me.) I was dismayed to see that it wasn't available in paperback at the time I wanted to read it.
Wait, let me clarify that last statement. It wasn't available in paperback in the United States. It was available in paperback from a little gem of a site (since bought by Amazon), the Book Depository, located in the Bailiwick of Guernsey with it's warehouse in the U.K. And so I purchased it from there, months before the book was available in the form I wanted here.
The site caters to American customers because there were prices listed in U.S. dollars, and not in English pounds sterling. It also offers free shipping. Pass up a deal like that? No way.
Now let's fast forward from April, 2010, to November 16, 2011 when the House Judiciary Committee held its hearing on HR 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The proceedings were a perfect illustration of a "stacked" hearing. That is, the proponents of the bill put five witnesses on the panel, to only one from the opposition.
In a way, the hearing was perfectly fitting because the bill itself is "stacked" against just about every aspect of the Internet -- regular consumers, companies that make their living online, cybersecurity specialists, civil libertarians and venture capitalists, to name a few. There was one exception. This is a bill written by, and written for, the Big Entertainment industry, and only for them as the latest chapter in their campaign to take control of the Internet and stamp out what they see as a massive "piracy" problem. Anyone else was not included or had their views dismissed with a wave of the Congressional hand as orchestrated by Big Media. Even if one accepts there is a piracy issue, the question is whether the cure is worse than the disease. In this case, it's much, much worse.
For purposes of showing how drastic and far-reaching that bill is, and why it has caused such a strong reaction, let's go back to my innocent purchase of a paperback book. If SOPA were to become law, the U.S. publisher of the Millennium paperbacks could accuse the foreign site of infringement and of causing harm, send a note to major credit card companies demanding that they stop processing payments to the site and then sit back and watch the foreign site's business wither away while it tries to work its way back through a legal thicket. At the same time, Book Depository or any foreign site so accused and so damaged has no recourse against its U.S. accuser.
This scenario is possible because of the fine print of the SOPA bill. A site is considered under the bill as a "foreign infringing site" if it is either directed to the U.S. or "is used by users in the United States." Just like that, Congress, led by those Republicans who decry Net Neutrality as (incorrectly) "regulating the Internet," have extended U.S. law to every website in every other country in the world where a U.S. web surfer would come ashore. There is no penalty against anyone for making a false accusation because the bill grants the accusers immunity from prosecution, we suppose on the assumption that the intent of the action was noble.
Also under the bill, the government could get a court order to require search engines and Internet service providers to redirect Internet users away from a website even if the site didn't intend to support infringing materials.
No wonder, then, that the European Parliament (EP) on Nov. 17 passed a resolution on the topic of the Nov. 28 European Union-U.S. summit saying that the EP stresses "the need to protect the integrity of the global Internet and freedom of communication by refraining from unilateral measures to revoke IP addresses or domain names."
The opposition in Washington to this misbegotten bill has united people from across the political spectrum, led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a staunch defender of tech companies and civil liberties, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), a conservative member of the House. Groups like Public Knowledge and Demand Progress are on the same side as conservative groups like Americans for Job Security and activist Patrick Ruffini's "Don't Censor the Net." In the Senate, Democrats like Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) have pledged along with Republicans Jerry Moran (KS) and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul (KY) to block the Senate version of the bill, which would be a disaster also. A move is on now to persuade the Senate leadership not to take up their version, which has already passed the Judiciary Committee.
Around the country, hundreds of websites, including Lofgren's, participated in American Censorship Day by blacking out part of their sites. Demand Progress delivered petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of people opposing the bill.
Tech companies were once seen as the bright spot in our economy, leading examples of innovation and growth. But at the hearing, the tech sector concerns at the bill were ignored or dismissed as overwrought, even as some of the biggest names in the business, like Google, Zynga, Facebook and Twitter, expressed their opposition. Defenders of the bill almost made big tech companies sounds like mafia fronts, using legit businesses as cover to hide ill-gotten gains from "piracy" and other nefarious deeds, saying it was no wonder that huge companies were seeking to protect ill-gotten gains, as if the entire web ecosystem wasn't at risk, companies and organizations big and small, would be put in jeopardy through this bill.
It was truly embarrassing to watch the elected representatives prostrate themselves to the entertainment business which is dwarfed, in economic terms, by companies that provide goods and services over the Internet. With the exception of one witness from Google and a stirring defense from Lofgren, the tech sectors were ignored or disregarded without any intellectual consideration by both Republicans and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. Instead, Google was under constant, and largely irrelevant, attack from the Committee members. Given the rhetoric, the SOPA bill could just as easily be called the Slavish Oblivious Politicians Act.
Of course, Republicans and other SOPA supporters are still going to Silicon Valley in search of campaign funds. It would be nice if people there let the GOP know how anti-job and anti-growth that bill really is.
The one group of opponents that the bill's backers may not be able to ignore as easily are those concerned about the harm to Internet security the bill would have. By fiddling with the Internet's essential plumbing of the Domain Name System (DNS), the show biz team and its acolytes could cause some real problems. No Internet technical experts or cybersecurity experts testified, but they are making their concerns known. Most recently, Leonard Napolitano, the director of the Sandia National Laboratories Center for Computer Sciences and Information Technologies joined others in saying that the bill would "negatively impact U.S. and global cybersecurity and Internet functionality." Napolitano, as with others before him, said the DNS blocking and re-routing wouldn't work and would expose Internet routing traffic to less secure servers.
Against these concerns, the representative of the Motion Picture Association of America could only tell the Judiciary Committee, "change the code" of the DNS security regime (DNSSEC) and the Committee members themselves respond only with platitudes that deny any problems at all. Nonsense.
There are reasonable ways to crack down on what the entertainment industry sees as "piracy," even if studies have show their concerns are overblown. This SOPA bill and its Senate companion, Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) are not the ways, because they do far more harm than good. It's time for Big Entertainment, with all of their lobbying dollars to shut these productions down and start over before other countries get wise to the game and pass the same legislation aimed at our websites. Then nobody will be able to buy anything.