Anti-Piracy Bill Raises Free Speech Concerns

John Conyers (L) and Lamar Smith introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act this week.

Bi-partisan legislation introduced this week has raised concerns that it may be abused to limit free speech online by knocking out social networking websites, e-mail, and even mobile devices for the audio and video content uploaded to them.

H.R. 3261, also known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), was introduced on October 26 by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), ranking member John Conyers (D-MI), Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Howard Berman (D-CA). Its stated objective is to target “rogue websites” that sell pirated or counterfeit goods, particularly film and music, created by Americans. It has a special focus on sites whose servers are overseas.

The legislation would officially sanction the civil forfeiture of domain names of web sites that law enforcement authorities suspect are helping people to easily access counterfeit goods and pirated content. It also requires “service providers” to the operators of the suspect web sites to cut off service, just as Mastercard and Visa did to Wikileaks. A website could be seized merely because a copyright owner filing a piracy complaint.

ICE began confiscating domains facilitating file-sharing of copyrighted materials last November.

The Immigrations and Customs Office has already been doing this since November of last year, when Operation In Our Sites shut down roughly 80 websites that facilitated file sharing. In announcing that operation, John T. Morton, the assistant secretary of ICE, and representatives of the Motion Picture Association of America, called it a long-term effort against online piracy and suspected criminals would be pursued anywhere in the world, the New York Times reported at the time.

However, SOPA, combined with the Senate Protect-IP bill, introduced this May by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT.), expands government reach to service providers overseas.

Some of the largest web sites would be subject to greater legal obligations as well, as the bill “would allow the attorney general to seek a[n]…order directed at search engines such as Google or Microsoft’s Bing, requiring them to block access to infringing sites via a direct hypertext link in their search results,” National Journal reported.

Some provisions in the bill would make it a “felony to stream unlicensed content — including cover band performances, karaoke videos, video game play-throughs, and more.” SOPA naturally has overwhelming support from the entertainment industry unions, which applauded its introduction in a joint press release.

It has also united free speech advocates and digital rights groups, who see SOPA as a potential legal backdoor to cutting down media freedom on the Internet.

CDT logo

“Any website that features user-generated content or that enables cloud-based data storage could end up in its crosshairs,” the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) said in a statement.

“Internet Service Providers would face new and open-ended obligations to monitor and police user behavior,” the CDT said. “Payment processors and ad networks would be required to cut off business with any website that rights-holders allege hasn’t done enough to police infringement.”

Gary Shapiro

Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, posted his thoughts at length at Forbes, writing in part,” the bill is so broadly written that, in theory, it would allow any copyright owner to shut down a legitimate retail website, such as Amazon or Best Buy, by alleging that one product being sold on the site could “enable or facilitate” an infringement. It could even allow any content owner to block access to the Patent Office website if it receives and posts a patent application for a product that is believed to use content without permission.”

“While I’m all for shutting down websites operated by criminal enterprises, not all websites used to facilitate crimes are guilty of wrongdoing. Imagine a user commits criminal copyright infringement using a foreign video sharing site similar to YouTube, but the site is unaware of the infringement. Since the site is “facilitating” criminal copyright infringement, albeit unknowingly, is it subject to the Stop Online Piracy Act? Who knows,” wrote Ryan Radia at the Technology Liberation Front, a libertarian Web analysis blog.

Some writers think the bill won’t be terribly effective in the first place, and will backfire on legal U.S. users.

Nate Anderson

“The scheme is largely targeted at foreign websites which do not recognize US law, and which therefore will often refuse to comply with takedown requests,” explained Nate Anderson at Ars Technica, adding, “the potential for abuse—even inadvertent abuse—here is astonishing, given the terrifically outsized stick with which content owners can now beat on suspected infringers.”

Internet engineers and digital rights organizations say that the bill creates as many or more security problems as it proposes to fix, namely in the sense that users will begin creating domain name system (DNS) workarounds to access those domains that have been seized by the government.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation put it: “The government would be able to force ISPs and search engines to redirect or dump users’ attempts to reach certain websites’ URLs. In response, third parties will woo average users to alternative servers that offer access to the entire Internet (not just the newly censored U.S. version), which will create new computer security vulnerabilities as the reliability and universality of the DNS evaporates.”


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