Nel's New Day

January 19, 2012

SOPA Protest Effective

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 6:41 PM
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The great Internet blackout of many websites in opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) succeeded! Despite the fact that some mainstream media ignored it (nothing on the evening CBS news, for example), Congressional supporters defected–beginning with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), then a trickle, and ending with a flood. Rubio announced his renunciation of co-sponsorship on Facebook, one of the protesting entities. After more and more people called their Congresspeople, the phone lines jammed. By the end of the day, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-IA), minority senior on the Judiciary Committee, withdrew support for the bill he helped write. The number of co-sponsors (30 in the House and 40 in the Senate for the corollary PIPA) disintegrated after the Web got riled up.

What is SOPA—and the blackout–all about? If the House bill succeeds, the government can arbitrarily shut down any website, search engine, etc. that it thinks might be violating the copyright laws. (Notice that the party for shrinking government and keeping it out of people’s lives was largely in support of this draconian bill.) To quote Jorge Rivas and Jamilah King, “[SOPA] allows the U.S. attorney general to seek a court order against any targeted offshore website that would, in turn, be served on Internet providers in an effort to make the target virtually disappear. It’s kind of an Internet death penalty.”

Rivas and King describe the impact of SOPA as follows: “If you create or consume content on the Internet, under SOPA the government would have the power to pull the plug on your website. If you’re a casual consumer, your favorite websites could be penalized and shut down if they seem to be illegally supporting copyrighted material. This is especially important for human rights groups and advocates in communities of color, who could face increased censorship if the bill is passed. The language of the bill makes it easy for the US Attorney General to go after websites it simply sees as a threat.”

SOPA supporters who claim that the bill affects only foreign websites are wrong. Around the world, the most widely used sites are American: Google, Facebook, YouTube, etc. The bill will plant liability of pirated content squarely on the website owner. This approach requires U.S. companies to use their own resources to police the foreign pages for pirated content. Smaller companies such as Reddit lack the resources to do this and may be forced to close. Bill co-sponsors may not be aware of the fact that SOPA will have devastating consequences.

In this situation, the Republicans were the smart ones. Whether they understood that such a large protest meant they were wrong (probably not) or they needed to keep whatever votes they could find (probably), they were in the majority in abandoning SOPA. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NW) plans to keep his co-sponsorship and vote to override a promised filibuster from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) so “the bill can be debated and improved.” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), head of the Democratic National Committee, will also remain a co-sponsor because she’s “open to the final version changing and thinks everyone should come to the table and find a compromise.” It’s a bad bill: trying to fix it is like trying to cook spoiled meat in a way to make it taste better.

Former Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut is another Democrat who vigorously opposes backing down on SOPA—but then it’s his job to fight it. Since leaving the Senate, he’s become chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America. Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid of Nevada stated that he will bring a vote on PIPA next Tuesday without trying to resolve the conflicts. Enough Democratic Senators opposed the bill, however, that it will have trouble passing.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), author of the bill, is one of the remaining few who staunchly stands behind it. It’s been reported that this same author has violated the basics of SOPA by using a photograph on his campaign website with no credit or pay to the photographer. And he’s not the only one. A blogger in Hawaii started collecting violations from Congressional SOPA/PIPA supporters. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MI) changed the background on his Twitter page after the photographer, Walter Rowland, complained about its illegal use; Sen. Claire McGaskill (D-MI) stole her background image from Flickr user J. Stephen Conn; and Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL) illegally used “Overweight Government Pig” by cartoonist John S. Pritchett—and thoughtfully cropped out the copyright notice. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) “lifted” an image from Google Maps for his website. [I’m betting that SOPA and PIPA turned out to be more educational that Congressional co-sponsors ever considered!]

More humor comes from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show when he compared SOPA to “coming up with a plan to prevent teen pregnancy that includes filling penises with cement. Your penis is still there, it’s just [that] no one can get at it.”

[Note: The four last standing Republican presidential candidates just announced in tonight’s debate in South Carolina that they opposed SOPA. More about SOPA and PIPA on Nel’s New Day, 12/17/11 and 1/17/12.]

January 17, 2012


Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 7:52 PM
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When Congress recesses at the end of the year and then returns the next month, the bills all seems to disappear—at least the ones that I want passed. Not so the one that would put unreasonable laws on people, companies, and websites that get caught up in illegally publishing or selling copyrighted material. One month ago today I wrote about the evils of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA); it hasn’t gone away.

In protest, Wikipedia, Reddit, BoingBoing, and others will go black tomorrow. What’s wrong with SOPA? Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, explained, “The bill is so over broad and so badly written that it’s going to impact all kinds of things that don’t have anything to do with stopping piracy.”

One problem is that there is no qualification that a foreign site be designed for the purpose of theft—just facilitate it, knowingly or unknowingly. Any site with a comment box or picture upload form can potentially infringe the proposed law. The attorney general can block any site that isn’t taken down within five days and has the power to fully censor foreign sites such as WikiLeaks. As in the Arizona situation with taking books from the Mexican American Studies program (1/16/12), the government can decide what should be censored.

According to SOPA, any site that allows users to post content is “primarily designed for the purpose of offering services in a manner that enables copyright violation.” Thus YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Gmail, Dropbox and millions of other sites would be “Internet sites…dedicated to theft of U.S. property,” under SOPA’s definition.

Furthermore, the site owners infringe if they (bloggers, Facebookers, etc.) “take deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of the use of…the site to carry out acts [of copyright infringement or circumvention].” Anyone who doesn’t screen every piece of content and determine if it is copyright-free before it is posted (whether there is infringing content on that site or not) is labeled as an “Internet site…dedicated to theft of U.S. property.”

Tomorrow Google will post information about the problems with SOPA and provide an add-on to let browsers know which companies are “SOPA-supportive.” No SOPA puts a red bar at the top of the browser that reads “SOPA Supporter! This company is a known supporter of the dangerous ‘Stop Online Piracy Act.’”

Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corporation which includes Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, supports the law. He went viral after President Obama released the following statement: “While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cyber-security risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet.”

Not only did Murdoch attack President Obama but he also went after Google, calling it a “piracy leader” and claiming that it “streams movies free and sells advertising around it. No wonder [it’s] pouring millions into lobbying.” Pretty strong stuff from the man whose company was caught up in a phone-hacking scandal at his UK newspapers, including erasing messages from the cellphone of crime victims’ parents. And Google doesn’t stream movies; the sites on its search index do that.

When originally proposed last October, SOPA was so low-key that passing it was almost a slam-dunk until the tech world found out about it. By now, the bad news about the bill has exploded—thanks to the Internet. At this time, SOPA will be revised before it goes to a House vote, but the Senate is still scheduled to vote on Protect IP Act (PIPA).

You can protest  SOPA by signing a petition. If you want to find out more about SOPA and PIPA check out the Wikipedia site—but do it before midnight or wait until Thursday.

I will be joining the blackout for tomorrow. Be back Thursday!

December 17, 2011

Conservatives Ambivalent about Controlling Internet

Net neutrality was a big story a month ago when the Senate Democrats, in a 52 to 46 vote, stopped a Republican attempt to repeal rules that prohibit Internet service providers from slowing down or blocking access to legitimate websites. Even FCC spokesman said the vote was “a win for consumers and businesses.”

Republicans use the typical excuse in their votes to  give advantages to big business by saying that these rules are an unnecessary burden on businesses and an attempt for the government to control the Internet. Except for two absences, all Senate Republicans voted to repeal the rules, and all Democrats voted to maintain them.

Verizon has since filed a lawsuit in federal court, arguing that the FCC overstepped its authority by trying to regulate broadband Internet service. The same court that ruled against Comcast last year, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, will hear the Verizon case. Comcast sued after FCC sanctioned Comcast for slowing down users’ access to file-sharing site BitTorrent, arguing it violated an FCC policy statement. If the court strikes down the net-neutrality rules, the FCC could choose to re-classify broadband Internet as a “telephone service” as opposed to an “information service.” The FCC has a much broader authority to regulate telephone companies.

The month before Republicans, who moaned about “government control of the Internet,” decided to control the Internet. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), introduced by House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), demands that search engines, Internet providers, and ad networks cut ties with websites “dedicated” to copyright infringement.

SOPA would create a “blacklist” of websites that infringe on copyrights. Private companies who allege that a site is unlawfully publishing their copyrighted content could, with a judge’s signature, demand that ad networks and companies such as PayPal and Visa stop doing business with such sites. Internet service providers would need to prevent Americans from visiting them. Prosecution would result from just suspicion of wrongdoing—just like the new law stating that U.S. citizens can be indefinitely imprisoned without a trial on suspicion of terrorist activities.

A website that deliberately acts “to avoid confirming a high probability of the use…of the site” to commit infringements” faces getting shut down by a lawsuit from a rightsholder, or having its credit card and ad funding pulled by a court order. Terms like “high probability” and “avoid confirming” aren’t defined, making prosecution—even of innocent people—far easier. SOPA adds a new violation to copyright infringement called “lacking sufficient zeal to prevent copyright infringement.”

SOPA would “criminalize linking and the fundamental structure of the Internet itself,” according to Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and effectively break the Internet. It would punish web firms, including search engines, that link to foreign websites dedicated to online piracy. Schmidt compared SOPA to the censorship practiced by repressive foreign governments like China. He also criticized SOPA for targeting the Domain Name System, which experts have warned could undermine the security of the Web.

The House bill states that any online service provider who has a DNS server has to generally “take technically feasible and reasonable measures designed to prevent access by its subscribers” to the targeted site. This includes DNS redirecting, but also can include any number of unspecified actions. What they are is completely unknown.

Supporters of  SOPA include the Motion Picture Association of America (not surprising), the pharmaceutical industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and even the International Association of Firefighters, who say that piracy saps the tax dollars that support emergency services.

Opponents run the gamut from progressive rights groups who say the bill could stifle free expression online to tea party activists who say that the measure gives far too much business-strangling power to the government. Wikipedia said they may temporarily blank out its pages in protest; other websites including Tumblr, Reddit and Firefox already have.

Even librarians are riled about SOPA. Representatives of 139,000 libraries stated that this bill “could threaten important library and educational activities.” If  SOPA passed, the court could find a person guilty even if the person believed the actions were legal. The new law would impose “ both misdemeanor and felony penalties for non-commercial public performances.” In addition, the proposed law would make colleges and universities far more liable to criminal prosecution even if they are operating under the assumption that their use of materials is reasonable.

Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law expert at Harvard Law School, argued that SOPA violates the First Amendment because it amounts to illegal “prior restraint,” suppressing speech without a judicial hearing. He also wrote to House members that the law’s definition of a rogue website is unconstitutionally vague:  “Conceivably, an entire website containing tens of thousands of pages could be targeted if only a single page were accused of infringement. Such an approach would create severe practical problems for sites with substantial user-generated content, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and for blogs that allow users to post videos, photos, and other materials.” In addition Tribe argued that  SOPA undermines the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which protected websites from being held responsible for the actions of their users.

A competing legal analysis by constitutional law expert Floyd Abrams claimed that the First Amendment does not protect copyright infringement and the bill’s protections are sufficient to not cause a chilling effect on protected speech. Abrams wrote the analysis on behalf of a coalition of movie and television associations which support the legislation.

SOPA is a great way for the entertainment industry to destroy the Internet and force people to go back the movie theater or sit in front of a small screen to watch reality shows. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) took the lead in the Senate to support SOPA with the Protect IP Act and might have succeeded with no debate if Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) had not put a hold on it and promised a filibuster. (Occasionally these are good!)

The House Judiciary Committee spent 12 hours Thursday debating SOPA and adjourned yesterday without a vote to move it onto the House and without a revised schedule for any vote. The bill’s sponsors were continually exposed for knowing almost nothing about how the Internet functions. During Thursday’s session, more than one lawmaker insisted that Congress could pass the measure without understanding the architecture of the Internet and how the bill could change the way the web works.

The committee also heard no testimony from experts on internet engineering or network infrastructure, even as it faces widespread opposition from the Internet industry. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who opposes SOPA, has confirmed that talks regarding SOPA will continue Dec. 21. It’s my guess that very few representatives will be there for the meeting so soon before their holiday; their recess was scheduled to begin on December 8.

Basically the bill is about copyright infringement. The United States has laws against copyright infringement. Congress just wants to make the search engines be the police to watch for this infringement—and make them take the blame if someone else infringes copyrights.

If the bill doesn’t pass before December 31, 2011, sponsors have to start from scratch in 2012. It’s a guarantee that millions of Internet lovers will provide lots of scrutiny for the destruction of the Internet.  

Thanks to the Internet, people can track the committee’s efforts to do away with the Internet. Enjoy! (At least as long as it exists.)


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