The bill also covers more than just infringement (the act of streaming copyrighted content, a felony under SOPA, carries a five-year prison sentence). It also covers “facilitating” such content. That term is so poorly defined, however, it could well apply to a hyperlink on an entirely unrelated Web site, or a single Tweet. The potential for self-censorship is glaring, as is the potential for false positives – how many sites will nuke non-infringing content, or links to such content, just to be safe?
And because SOPA also prohibits tools that could be used to get around the Attorney General’s blockade, it may also mean that the same anonymity and address-spoofing software used by activists and protesters will become illegal to U.S. Internet users (many of these tools, incidentally, are funded by the U.S. government, which has no problem with protesters in Iran or China using them). That’s in part why a number of human rights organizations have come out against the bill.
(The list of big-name SOPA opponents is long and varied, including most of Silicon Valley’s biggest anchors, several Internet Service Providers and domain-name hosts, legal scholars and civil liberties organizations).
There are plenty of other SOPA spillover effects. Because the proposed law would give the U.S. government the ability to demand that American domain-name registrars block certain sites, many of those registrars will have to implement complex new technical measures. Indeed, the process of blocking those sites will go a long way toward screwing up the technical fabric of the Internet by throwing a U.S. government blacklist onto the global domain-name system.
SOPA’s most ironic flaw, however, is that it is a miserably ineffectual way to fight piracy. Even if a Web site that legitimately, willfully and exclusively pirates content is shut down in the U.S. by government order, the site’s owners can quickly and easily set up shop under a different name, or a multitude of names. Additionally, anyone with a fairly basic set of technical skills can find another way to access banned sites. And if SOPA passes, it’s a pretty safe bet that such skills will quickly become common knowledge. The most immediate impact of SOPA, it seems, will be to force American users to learn the same tricks their counterparts in Iran, Saudi Arabia and China already know.
If it is designed to do anything other than placate the largest U.S. copyright-holders, then SOPA is a failure. But the most frightening aspect of the bill isn’t its contents, it’s the future it predicts.
For years, opposition to heavy-handed anti-online-piracy bills has been somewhat subdued, at least in part because there’s a perception in some corners that the only people who really have anything to fear under such laws are the digital thieves who would rather download music and movies illegally than pay for them – the punks keeping food off Vin Diesel’s table. Whether there’s any merit to that perception is, at best, debatable. But SOPA makes no distinction. A person who hasn’t so much as heard of BitTorrent can wake up one day to find their entire account on a video-hosting site inaccessible, all because somebody else used the same service to upload a copy of the Fast and the Furious.
And because the U.S. is still where much of the Internet’s infrastructure lives, SOPA isn’t just going to effect Americans. As Michael Geist points out, virtually every dot-com Web address is managed by a domain-name registry in the U.S., and American lobbying is believed to have played a pretty central role in getting tougher anti-piracy legislation on the table in a number of countries, including Canada.
There’s a reason millions of people around the world have mobilized against this bill. The Internet works best when every node is on equal footing. Every time policymakers try to clean up one of the Web’s ugly back alleys – be it child pornography, terrorist propaganda or financial fraud – they have to weigh the seriousness of the crime and the effectiveness of the remedy against the constraints that remedy places on a free and open Web. That requires a scale, not a sledgehammer.
With SOPA, the country in which the Internet’s nervous system resides now stands on the verge of telling the rest of the world that a regionally firewalled, censored Internet is a perfectly acceptable outcome – in the name of protecting copyright holders. That’s an unreasonable tradeoff.