It’s Hollywood against Silicon Valley when it comes to lobbing around the new anti-piracy legislation pending in Washington DC. And both sides are taking a stance that can hurt average consumers like you and me, I think.
The new laws would give the Justice Department broad powers to seize domain names and shut websites that link to pirated content — knowingly or unknowingly. That’s where the problem comes in for Silicon Valley: technologists know that the high legal cost of defending against unjustified seizures and lawsuits could easily bankrupt small or start-up companies. (Trust me on this one: been there, got the T-shirt. Two of ’em, actually, for two different start-ups that ran afoul of the RIAA and other “old media” giants with deep pockets.)
But it’s not just start-ups that are in danger under the new legislation now pending in Congress. Google, Yahoo, eBay and Facebook joined the campaign to block the legislation because they believe that the proposed legislation threatens free speech and will jeopardize the technological stability of the World Wide Web.
I understand both sides of this issue — copyright holders deserve to be able to profit from their creative work, and pirated content is just plain wrong. But not everyone caught up in the broad net of John Doe lawsuits is guilty — and not every site that links to or hosts pirated content does so knowingly. (That’s why Congress saw fit to extend the “common carrier” rule to Internet sites initially — to protect an ISP or website that unknowingly hosts content that violates various statutes. Now, a site like YouTube is required to remove pirated content when asked to do so or notified that the copyright holder has not given permission for it to be posted — but the government or the copyright holder can’t seize the YouTube domain, levy huge fines against YouTube, or shut the site down because some teenager in Hong Kong or Houston posts a pirated video. For now — but that could change, and that’s the problem.)
But while the corporate giants battle it out, the average Internet user seems to have been forgotten. Who’s going to protect me from a “John Doe” lawsuit for $150,000 in damages because someone accessing my wireless router without my permission downloads a movie? Who’s going to stop a movie studio from demanding that my ISP block Internet service to my street address because a teenager is alleged to have downloaded six songs illegally? (Note that the block is for “notices of pirated content”, not for being CONVICTED of illegal downloads. There’s no due process here: six notices and you’re blocked.)
The answer is simple: nobody. Not Silicon Valley — they want to shift the liability off their balance sheets and onto mine. And certainly not Hollywood, because they definitely want to make me liable for anything that happens around my IP address — whether it’s me, someone else in my household, or a drive-by hacker. I don’t download illegal content — I haven’t since the days before the RIAA went after Napster.
I don’t post copyrighted material on any blog I write without permission, a Creative Commons license, or a paid license. But can I say the same thing about my 10-year-old? Or his 20-year-old sister? Or even my husband? I have no clue. And, although I run the Zone Alarm security software suite, I can’t swear that nobody else has accessed my PC, my router, or my email accounts — in fact, I know someone has, because several rounds of spam were sent from my personal email address recently after it got hijacked.
So I’m in danger from the new law. And so are you. Please, write or call your Senator and tell him or her that you’re against S. 698, the so-called protect IP Act. Then, write or call your Representative and tell him or her that you’re against SOPA (“the stop online piracy act”), the even more draconian version of the bill pending in the House of Representatives.
One aspect of the bills that isn’t often reported in the media is that the entertainment industry lobbyists who (in essence) drafted the bills sponsored by elected representatives from both parties who received millions in contributions from the industry never stopped to think about the technical aspects of enforcing the new laws. If you’re technically minded, and interested in the details of just what would be required of every website from a blog like this one to sites like Google under the new law, take a look at this analysis written by Paul Vixie, chairman and chief scientist at the Internet Systems Consortium.
The big concern is that the law requires search engines and ISPs to block access (through domain name server filtering) to any site that links to or hosts pirated content. In essence, it would require a search engine like Google to filter search results on the fly to hide these sites so that they don’t show up in search engines — and if the search engines do that, it opens up a whole new Pandora’s box of security concerns where spoof sites, phishing sites, and other scam sites run by cyber criminals find it MUCH easier to catch traffic they are diverting from legitimate sites.
The proponents of the bill go on and on about the cost of piracy. I sympathize with them — but what about the cost to legitimate businesses who find themselves blocked or shut down because of the bad actions of one person? How much would it cost YOUR business if someone left a comment on your company blog that linked to pirated content — and your whole domain (email, website, microsites, apps linked to your domain, blog) blocked?
This legislation falls into the category of things that “mean well”, but lack the technical sophistication to “work well”. We need to reduce the amount of pirated content — but we need to do it without burdensome regulations and thoughtless knee-jerk reactions that take away people’s First Amendment rights without a thought to the consequences.