SOPA and PIPA have been shelved for the moment, but I thought it might be worthwhile to publish a recent persuasive essay I wrote on the topic to convince you to remain opposed to these bills and any future forms of them (which will most certainly appear).
An Internet at Risk
The Internet is one of the few institutions of the modern world that is truly global. Every day, billions of people of all genders, religions, race, and language connect to the same worldwide network of servers, personal computers, and mobile devices for uses that span the gamut from education and communication to entertainment and commerce (“Internet Users”). Unfortunately, the extreme flexibility of the Internet also allows it to be used for the unauthorized distribution and theft of copyrighted content. Referred to as Internet “piracy,” this practice is becoming increasingly harmful to the artists and content providers that create and distribute most of the digital media in existence today. In response, new legislation like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) has been introduced in the United States to help combat piracy on the Internet. While these bills are well-intentioned, they will have massive, unintended consequences that will have global implications and do far more harm to the internet than good. SOPA and PIPA must not be allowed to pass, and all those concerned about the future of the Web must take action immediately to safeguard something that is so crucially important to the functioning of the modern world.
The end goal of both bills is noble and well-intentioned: to stop online piracy and protect intellectual property on the Internet. As the Internet develops and proliferating technology allows the distribution of more and more media through the Web, piracy is becoming an increasingly huge problem. According to a study authored by Stephen Siwek of the Institute for Policy Innovation, the effects of internet piracy include $12.5 billion dollars in annual losses to the U.S. economy, seventy thousand lost jobs, and two billion dollars in lost American wages (Siwek). Proponents of SOPA and PIPA argue that enacting the legislation will put a significant dent in these numbers. Although there are already tools to combat online piracy such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the PRO-IP Act, neither provides provisions to protect against piracy-encouraging websites that are located outside of the United States and thus untouchable by current copyright law, according to a video prepared by the internet-activism non-profit, Fight for the Future. SOPA and PIPA would allow United States companies to take action by preventing U.S. consumers from accessing these rouge foreign sites and by cutting off all revenue (usually from advertising) from U.S.-based companies (“Protect IP / SOPA Breaks the Internet”). The proposed legislation would greatly help suffering content industries, and as a result, there are many influential companies and organizations that support the legislation. Hundreds of supporters are listed on the House Judiciary Committee’s list of official supporters that includes names such as ABC, CBS, Comcast/NBC Universal, Disney, the Entertainment Software Association, and almost all major record labels (“List of Supporters: H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act”).
Supporters of SOPA and PIPA also argue that they will protect against dangerous counterfeit products such as drugs being sold to consumers through the Internet. Chief Security Officer of Pfizer, John Clark, testified before the House Judiciary Committee that patients could not always detect cleverly forged websites selling drugs that were either mis-branded or simply counterfeit. According to Clark, such counterfeit drugs often contain “none of the active pharmaceutical ingredient” and contained many “toxic ingredients.” SOPA and PIPA would mitigate the “major threat to patients” by allowing the government to block access to the “many professional looking websites that promise safe, FDA-approved, branded medicines from countries such as Canada or the UK” (Clark).
Unfortunately, the promise of SOPA and PIPA rapidly disappears when looking at the potential consequences of both pieces of legislation, first and foremost the fact that they will allow unbridled censorship of the Internet. Because SOPA requires little to no due process when taking down a site, the potential for abuse with the purposes of suppression of information is high. According to Lawrence H. Tribe, a Harvard University professor of constitutional law, SOPA’s very existence would “dramatically chill protected speech by undermining the openness and free exchange of information at the heart of the Internet” and would “violate the First Amendment” (Tribe 4, 7).
Noting the crucial role of the Internet and social networking in recent worldwide protests and the Arab Spring, many are concerned that copycat governments could introduce similar laws to SOPA and PIPA or use their passage in the United States as justification for their own internet censorship. The Center for Technology and Democracy, in a statement authored by Cynthia Wong, warned, “If SOPA and PIPA are enacted, the US government must be prepared for other governments to follow suit, in service to whatever social policies they believe are important—whether restricting hate speech, insults to public officials, or political dissent” (Wong). In addition, according to Corynne McSherry and Peter Eckersley of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, proxy servers (computer networks designed to make Internet users anyonymous) such as those used during the Arab Spring can also be used to thwart copyright enforcement and therefore may be regulated by the act (McSherry and Eckersley). Much of this abuse, at least in the United States, may not even be visible to the public. According to Brooklyn Law School professor Jason Mazzone, “Much of what will happen under SOPA will occur out of the public eye and without the possibility of holding anyone accountable. For when copyright law is made and enforced privately, it is hard for the public to know the shape that the law takes and harder still to complain about its operation” (Mazzone). In total, a total of forty-one human rights organizations and 110 prominent law professors have expressed concerns about the bills (“More about SOPA and PIPA”).
In addition to the threat of censorship, SOPA and PIPA threaten the very infrastructure and technological underpinnings of the Internet. The first step in accessing any website on the Internet is through the Domain Name System (DNS), which is the network that assigns a domain name like www.google.com to an IP Address, which is an individual numeric ID that points to a single server on the Web. In layman’s terms, it is the system that tells any web-connected device how to connect to Google’s physical servers when anyone types in “google.com” in his or her web browser (Brain and Crawford). It is this system that SOPA and PIPA are targeting to block websites, and many experts believe that the overall security of the Internet will be compromised as a result. In a technical report authored by five DNS experts from Shinkuro, Verisign, Georgia Tech, ICANN’s Security Council, and the Internet Systems Consortium, evidence is provided that PIPA “would weaken [important efforts] to improve Internet security” and would “enshrine and institutionalize the very network manipulation” that DNS security components fight “to prevent cyberattacks and other malevolent behavior on the global Internet, thereby exposing networks and users to increased security and privacy risks.” The legislation’s widespread use would “threaten the security and stability of the global DNS” and create “significant risk of collateral damage, with filtering of one domain potentially affecting users’ ability to reach non-infringing Internet content” (Crocker et al.).
In addition to the censorship and security issues surrounding both pieces of legislation, SOPA and PIPA will kill jobs, stifle businesses, and restrict innovation if enacted. Because businesses can sue almost any other business they want, Internet startups that can’t afford a protracted legal battle (even if they are completely in the clear) can be killed at a moment’s notice by competitors (“Protect IP / SOPA Breaks the Internet”). Overall, startups become a much riskier endeavor. Even for existing and well-funded businesses, SOPA and PIPA would make hosting user-generated content nearly unsustainable. According to Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, the bill essentially requires that websites actively police every single piece of content uploaded to their sites or face a shutdown; a near impossible task for sites like Facebook, YouTube, and other social networks that have millions of users a day. Shapiro states that SOPA and PIPA would “undo the legal safe harbors that have allowed a world-leading Internet industry to flourish over the last decade” and would “expose legitimate American businesses and innovators to broad and open-ended liability. The result will be more lawsuits, decreased venture capital investment, and fewer new jobs” (qtd. in Anderson).
According to Google, one of the Internet’s largest purveyors of digital content, AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, IAC, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo and Zynga all authored a letter addressed to Congress stating that SOPA and PIPA “pose a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job-creation” (qtd. in “More about SOPA and PIPA”). In addition, over fifty venture capitalists stated that the legislation “would stifle investment in Internet services, throttle innovation, and hurt American competitiveness” and 204 entrepreneurs expressed concern that SOPA and PIPA would “hurt economic growth and chill innovation” (qtd. in “More about SOPA and PIPA”).
Finally, it is unlikely that SOPA and PIPA would even accomplish their original goal of stopping piracy. According to Google, the regulations in SOPA and PIPA won’t shut down pirate sites. Rather, the sites will simply “change their addresses and continue their criminal activities, while law-abiding companies will suffer high penalties for breaches they can’t possibly control” (“More about SOPA and PIPA”). Edward J. Black, president and CEO of the Computer & Communication Industry Association, concurred in an article in the Huffington Post, stating that “Ironically, it [SOPA] would do little to stop actual pirate websites, which could simply reappear hours later under a different name” (Black). In fact, thanks to an added provision in the bills that limits their powers to foreign websites only, some of the biggest piracy websites would be completely excluded from the legislation. According to tech columnist Mike Masnick, arguably the largest website for pirated content, ThePirateBay.org, would be completely excluded from the legislation thanks to its U.S.-registered .org domain name (Masnick).
Despite the fact that they will encourage Internet censorship across the globe, stifle economic growth and innovation, undermine key components of the Internet infrastructure, and fail to accomplish their original goal of stopping piracy, both the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act are still pending in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, respectively. Although it is possible, as proponents argue, that the legislation will help reduce the trade of dangerous counterfeit products over the Internet, the benefit of protecting a few consumers who aren’t intelligent enough to do some research before purchasing drugs over the Internet does not even come close to outweighing the global and long-lasting implications of SOPA and PIPA. Even the opposition of dozens of Internet companies, constitutional lawyers, and human rights organizations has failed to put an end to these overreaching, ill-conceived pieces of legislation that threaten the future of the one twenty-first century innovation that everyone depends on. Perhaps the congressmen and senators supporting SOPA and PIPA need to re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a lesson on how good intentions can spiral out of control when one is messing with something that simply shouldn’t be messed with. An Internet post-SOPA and post-PIPA would be just as much a monster as Victor Frankenstein’s ungodly creation (Shelley).
Ultimately, the last hope for stopping these frightening bills lies with informed citizens and students concerned about the future of their Internet, something they depend upon now more than ever. The United States House of Representatives and Senate were designed to represent the will of the people. If the people don’t want to see SOPA and PIPA pass, they can’t expect Congress to come to them. They need to go to Congress. Any and all citizens opposed to the bills need to contact their representatives in Congress, sign Internet petitions, and do everything to make their voices heard. It’s the only way to save the future of the Web. If SOPA and PIPA pass, all we’ll be seeing on the internet is █████ of █████████████ that ██████████ ████████████ do █████, and █████████████████████████. [This sentence redacted per H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act].
Anderson, Nate. “At Web Censorship Hearing, Congress Guns for ‘Pro-Pirate’ Google.” ArsTechnica. ArsTechnica. Nov. 2011. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.
Black, Edward. “Internet Users, Free Speech Experts, Petition against SOPA.” Huff Post Tech. The Huffington Post. 13 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.
Brain, Marshall, and Stephanie Cra wford. “How Domain Name Servers Work.” HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks.com. 2012. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.
Clark, John. “Testimony of John P Clark, Chief Security Officer, Pfizer Inc and Vice President, Global Security, Before the House Judiciary Committee.” House Judiciary Committee. 16 Nov. 2011. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.
Crocker, Steve, et al. “Security and Other Technical Concerns Raised by the DNS Filtering Requirements in the PROTECT IP Bill.” N.p. May 2011. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.
“Internet Users.” CIA World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. 16 Jan. 2012. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.
“List of Supporters: H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act.” United States House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. 2012. Web. 22 Jan 2012.
Masnick, Mike. “If SOPA’s Main Target is the Pirate Bay, it’s Worth Pointing Out that ThePirateBay.org is Immune from SOPA.” Techdirt. Techdirt. 11 Jan 2012. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.
Mazzone, Jason. “The Privatization of Copyright Lawmaking.” TorrentFreak. TorrentFreak. 12 Nov. 2011. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.
McSherry, Corynne, and Peter Eckersley. “Hollywood’s New War on Software Freedom and Internet Innovation.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. Electronic Frontier Foundation. 11 Nov. 2011. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.
“More about SOPA and PIPA.” End Piracy, Not Liberty. Google. 18 Jan. 2012. Web. 22 Jan 2012.
“Protect IP / SOPA Breaks the Internet.” Fight for the Future. Fight for the Future. 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. New York: Signet, 1994. Print.
Siwek, Stephen. “The True Cost of Sound Recording Piracy to the U.S. Economy.” Institute for Policy Innovation. 21 Aug. 2007. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.
Tribe, Lawrence. “The ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ (SOPA) Violates the First Amendment.” Scribd. Scribd. 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.
Wong, Cynthia. “US Piracy Law Could Threaten Human Rights.” Center for Democracy & Technology. Center for Democracy and Technology. 18 Nov. 2011. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.