SOPA – the Stop Online Piracy Act – Is It Really Dangerous?

Recently, the Stop Online Piracy Act, 112 HR 3261 (SOPA) was introduced as a bill in the US House of Representatives. This is the House companion to the Senate Protect-IP Act that drew considerable opposition from the tech and First Amendment quarters, so many of the issues remain same. The intent of SOPA is to help combat online piracy. This is a laudable goal; however, the unintended consequences are scary for intermediaries, websites with user generated content, DNS providers, and those of us who rely on the Internet as a vibrant and rich communications network.

SOPA grants IP claimants a lot more power than they currently have to remove allegedly infringing content and expands the scope of people who may be liable by giving:

  • the Attorney General the power to compel companies that maintain DNS look-ups to change the tables, also known as domain name filtering. See analysis by Larry Downes.

The problem is that these are powerful remedies made available based upon unproven assertions and little due process. Imagine you’re a website operator, under SOPA you can get your Paypal payment processing services cut-off merely because someone claimed there’s infringing content or apps on your site. Faced with that choice, it’s an easy decision, remove the content early and often just to be safe.

IP rights are certainly important and need to be respected on the Internet, and there is a very real piracy problem, but SOPA threatens an essential attribute of the Internet – its ability to easily share information without friction and permissions. This doesn’t mean that the Internet should be a lawless expanse void of law or consequences either. The challenge is that SOPA exposes intermediaries to undue financial and legal liability for content in a way that will undoubtedly chill the free flow of content and ideas embodied in both software and media. In addition, the language in the bill is ambiguous leaving it open to abuse by plaintiffs who have already demonstrated aggressive interpretations of the existing DMCA framework. This is why there is so much concern that SOPA represents a real and dangerous threat to the Internet.

Some describe this debate in polemic terms, as Hollywood vs. the Internet, where the Internet slowly becomes managed by dominant media interests. Others have focused on the deleterious impact on human rights. Perhaps Masterswitch writer Tim Wu would see this as part of a larger pattern of how open information ecosystems become closed over time. US House Representative Zoe Lofgren, representing voters in Silicon Valley, warns that this “would mean the end of the Internet as we know it.” It could also just be bad legislation.

If SOPA becomes law, few think it will actually solve the problem. For example, it seems clear that blocking domains is not an effective means to combat piracy because domains can be redirected so easily. A while back Homeland Security asked Mozilla to take-down an add-on without a court order or a finding of liability. Under a SOPA regime, it appears the same incident would allow the putative plaintiffs to petition the Attorney General to issue an injunction compelling take-down based only on a specious claim of contributory infringement. Oddly SOPA makes one really appreciate the DMCA.

Many in the tech and policy communities are organizing to oppose SOPA. What’s most important is that Congress hears from everyone on this, whatever their view.  Plus it’s Tuesday November 8th -voting day- so let your voice be heard. If you want to let Congress know that you oppose the legislation EFF and Public Knowledge have sites set up to easily send your message to Congress.

Additional links to the bill and other commentary can be found below.

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Homeland Security Request to Take Down MafiaaFire Add-on

From time to time, we receive government requests for information, usually market information and occasionally subpoenas. Recently the US Department of Homeland Security contacted Mozilla and requested that we remove the MafiaaFire add-on.  The ICE Homeland Security Investigations unit alleged that the add-on circumvented a seizure order DHS had obtained against a number of domain names.   Mafiaafire, like several other similar  add-ons already available through AMO, redirects the user from one domain name to another similar to a mail forwarding service.  In this case, Mafiaafire redirects traffic from seized domains to other domains. Here the seized domain names allegedly were used to stream content protected by copyrights of  professional sports franchises and other media concerns.

Our approach is to comply with valid court orders, warrants, and legal mandates, but in this case there was no such court order.  Thus, to evaluate Homeland Security’s request, we asked them several questions similar to those below to understand the legal justification:

  • Have any courts determined that the Mafiaafire add-on is unlawful or illegal in any way? If so, on what basis? (Please provide any relevant rulings)
  • Is Mozilla legally obligated to disable the add-on or is this request based on other reasons? If other reasons, can you please specify.
  • Can you please provide a copy of the relevant seizure order upon which your request to Mozilla to take down the Mafiaafire  add-on is based?

To date we’ve received no response from Homeland Security nor any court order.

One of the fundamental issues here is under what conditions do intermediaries accede to government requests that have a censorship effect and which may threaten the open Internet. Others have commented on these practices already.  In this case, the underlying justification arises from content holders legitimate desire to combat piracy.  The problem stems from the use of these government powers in service of private content holders when it can have unintended and harmful consequences.  Longterm, the challenge is to find better mechanisms that provide both real due process and transparency without infringing upon developer and user freedoms traditionally associated with the Internet.  More to come.