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SOPA's most frightening flaw is the future it predicts Add to ...

Bob Parsons likes to go to Zimbabwe and shoot elephants.

The CEO of GoDaddy, a company that lets customers register Web site domain names, is apparently deeply concerned with the plight of Zimbabwean subsistence farmers, who he says are plagued by marauding elephant gangs that destroy crops and trample fields.

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To ease the farmers’ burden, Mr. Parsons takes a rifle, lies in wait for the elephants to arrive in the dead of night, and then opens fire. The world first learned of his philanthropic pachydermicide early this year, when Mr. Parsons uploaded a somewhat bizarre video detailing his exploits, and featuring a chaotic scene of what he termed “hungry villagers” – many of them wearing bright orange GoDaddy caps – tearing an elephant carcass apart for the meat.

The video caused many critics to complain that Mr. Parsons appeared more interested in unleashing his inner Hemingway with some bang-bang tourism than helping Zimbabwean farmers. Several groups, including PETA, urged a boycott of GoDaddy.

In fact, GoDaddy is frequently the subject of controversy. Most of the time, that controversy centres on the company’s TV ads, which tend to follow a pretty standard script: Somebody talks about registering a Web site with GoDaddy, at which point one or more women, who are largely incidental to the situation, begin to undress. It’s like a beer commercial, only less subtle.

Yet despite these various controversies, GoDaddy has hummed along profitably, largely unscathed by its reputation for crass commercials and elephant-ambushing executives. Until this month, none of the fledgling GoDaddy-boycott campaigns really gained much traction.

Then the company went ahead and announced its support for something called the Stop Online Piracy Act. In less than a week, they lost some 72,000 domain names, as customers switched to competitors’ services in protest. In fact, the onslaught of bad publicity and general outcry was so deafening, the company reversed its position in less than a day, saying maybe it didn’t support SOPA after all.

This, it appears, is the kind of backlash an Internet-based company can expect when it throws its support behind one of the worst Internet laws ever proposed.

In late October of this year, Republican Senator Lamar Smith entered a bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act into the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill, which is still at the committee stage but may pass as early as next year, is the latest attempt to tackle the issue of copyright infringement in the digital age, and has the blessing of many of the major American content producers and industry associations, such as the Motion Picture Association of America.

SOPA also has opposition – massive, unprecedented opposition. The reasons for this opposition are varied, but basically boil down to this: within the bill’s 78 pages is a blueprint for ruining the Internet. In that sense, SOPA is a remarkable achievement. Rarely does a proposed law manage to be so bad in so many different ways.

Like the Clear Skies Act or the Ministry of Love, the Stop Online Piracy Act is somewhat confusingly named. Even though it is primarily a piece of anti-piracy legislation, SOPA is broad. The proposed bill gives the U.S. government, through the office of the Attorney General, the power to pursue court orders against any site believed to be engaging in copyright infringement. (There’s nothing adversarial about the court proceedings that lead to those orders: the defendant doesn’t even have to be present).

Armed with that power, the Attorney General can then order search engines to remove the site from their listings. The AG can likewise order Internet Service Providers to block users from accessing the site. The AG can also order advertising networks and payment providers to stop doing business with the site. And all those entities are compelled to comply. Indeed, the bill imposes stiff penalties on anyone who doesn’t, and offers immunity to ad networks and payment processors that follow orders. As such, SOPA is chock-full of incentives for ISPs, content-hosting sites and other such entities to go along with the government’s demands.

The bill also gives individual intellectual property holders such as record labels and cable companies the ability to issue similar notices to ad networks and payment processors, demanding the same kinds of remedies. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, copyright-holders can issue takedown notices for individual bits of content, such as infringing Youtube videos. SOPA extends a variation of that power to cover entire Web sites. The onus is then on the blacklisted sites to prove the absence of infringing content.

SOPA combines these iron-fist powers with a series of broad definitions. Whereas some previous incarnations of anti-piracy bills in the U.S. at least focused on sites that were primarily dedicated to copyright infringement – those virtual hangouts where nobody does anything but trade bootleg copies of the new Transformers movie – SOPA sets its sights on any infringement, no matter how small. That means the Attorney General can pursue court orders against and demand the blocking of any Web site with a tiny amount of infringing content. Somebody used an unauthorized Maroon 5 song in that summer vacation video they posted on your social network? The entire site now falls under SOPA’s penalty clauses.

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