Why SOPA Must Die

[It’s taken me a while to get my thoughts in order regarding this issue, especially since so many others have already spoken about it more eloquently than I ever could. But this is such an important topic, and it has been weighing on my mind so heavily as of late, that I just couldn’t wait any longer – I had to put my thoughts down in words.]

SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act; H.R. 3261) is a bill before the United States House of Representatives. In brief, it allows both the Department of Justice and copyright holders to request court orders against websites that are allegedly distributing copyrighted material without permission, or are just enabling others to do so. These court orders can require payment processors (e.g., PayPal, Visa, MasterCard, etc.) to freeze accounts, force search engines to de-list the accused website, and require ISPs to block the site’s DNS records.

(Strangely enough, the act also contains some other similar provisions for websites selling discount prescription drugs and surplus military hardware, of all things.)

The freezing of accounts is bad enough, but the blocking of DNS records is perhaps the most frightening aspect of this bill, as this amounts to no less than outright censorship of the Internet, similar to that seen in places like China and Iran.

I have a number of concerns with this bill, but I will just stick to the top few, the ones I think are the most egregious.

Lack of Due Process

Perhaps the most offensive aspect of this bill is its removal of the protection of due process for the accused. The 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to due process, but this bill almost completely denies that right to those accused under its terms.

The right to due process is one of those really important rights for any free society – right up there with freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to a trial by jury.

SOPA circumvents due process by making it so that the government (on the say-so of a copyright holder) has the right to take away something of yours (your website, and/or your money) without giving you a chance to challenge this. The takedown actions authorized under SOPA are effective immediately, and there is little to no burden of proof on those asking for the takedown, and even less chance of retribution on those asking for the takedown should their claims later be proven false.

Immediate action can be understandable in some circumstances (child kidnapping, serial killers, etc.), but for something as mundane as copyright infringement, it seems a bit excessive.

Which brings me to my next point…

Excessively Broad

The text of SOPA is purposefully very, very, very broadly written. This, I think, stems from a desire to sort of “cover your bases,” by trying to be as broad as possible so there are no loopholes.

Unfortunately, in this case the broad language simply serves to make this bill applicable to almost everything, in the same way that a law that said “any type of death threat, no matter what counts as attempted murder” is applicable to almost anything. If our actual criminal statues were worded this broadly, every single one of us would be in jail by now, because there is not a one of us who hasn’t at some point in our lives done something that could be construed as a death threat – from angry words during an argument to giving a rude gesture while driving.

This sort of broad, sweeping language doesn’t work for criminal law, and it doesn’t work for SOPA either.

SOPA claims to be aimed at stopping large-scale for-profit copyright infringement, but the actual text means the law would apply to any type of copyright infringement, no matter how small or insignificant.

Stupidly Unenforceable

The Internet is a global network. But the people who wrote SOPA seem to think that the only part of the Internet that counts is the part that’s in the United States.

This is so stupidly untrue as to not require further elaboration.

SOPA would allow blocking of websites for copyright infringement… but it claims to be aimed at “foreign” websites. And the only blocking it authorizes is to block those sites from being seen by… Americans. So, it doesn’t actually “block” the sites, it just blocks them from being seen in America. Anyone in the rest of the world can keep on visiting the site, and download unauthorized copyrighted material to their hearts content.

Your guess as to how, exactly, this is supposed to “stop online piracy” is as good as mine.

Ultimately Ineffective

The website blocking authorized by SOPA is done at the DNS level – meaning that it simply stops DNS servers (only in the U.S., as I mentioned above) from resolving the site’s domain name to its numerical IP address.

Which means that if the site www.example.com was blocked, but you knew it’s IP address (e.g., 192.168.55.34), you could just type in the numerical address instead, and it would work just fine.

This is the most obvious example as to why SOPA would be ultimately ineffective at its stated purpose – that is, stopping “online piracy.”

This is a bit like covering your eyes while witnessing a crime, and saying  “I can’t see it, so it’s not happening.”

Some of the other aspects of the act – for example, forcing payment gateways (such as PayPal or Visa or MasterCard, etc.), to freeze the accounts of the website’s owners – might be somewhat effective, but again, remember that this only affects payment gateways within the United States. If a “foreign” website is distributing unauthorized copyrighted material for profit, chances are they are going to use a “foreign” payment gateway as well. So, once again, SOPA achieves nothing towards its stated goal.

It Is Censorship

Obviously, SOPA was not designed as censorship per se, but due to the way it is structured, it would effectively be censorship.

Remember, SOPA allows someone to claim you are violating their copyright, and have your site completely blocked.

This is true even if it turns out that you were not violating their copyright, or that your use of copyrighted material falls under “fair use.”

Now, imagine that you are a big website (like, say, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, or Twitter) – are you going to want to run the risk of having your site suddenly blocked because one of your users uploaded something that is copyrighted (even if it is ultimately found to be fair use)? Of course not!

Even though sites like Facebook and YouTube are probably big enough to get unblocked fairly quickly, the simple threat of being blocked at a moments notice is enough to force them – out of simple self-preservation – to severely censor their users. They just can’t take the risk – the potential harm to them (having their site blocked) is too great to even risk letting users upload anything that might, possibly, maybe, be considered copyright infringement.

Out of Proportion

We’ve seen how SOPA is carrying a pretty big stick when it comes to enforcement. But let’s think for a moment about what it is meant to be stopping, exactly:

Copyright Infringement.

Not “piracy,” not “theft of intellectual property,” but simple infringement of copyright.

Copyright, remember, is not a “fundamental” or “universal” right. It is a (time-limited) government granted monopoly on things you create, to encourage people to create things, knowing that others can’t just take what you’ve done for free and make money from it. It’s an incentive to create – nothing more, and nothing less.

Now consider that SOPA would make copyright infringement a felony.

Think about that for a moment – this law would make illegally copying someone’s work be on the same criminal level as murder and kidnapping.

The other aspects of SOPA – blocking websites and freezing accounts – are also wildly out of proportion with the actual harm done.

Imagine if other laws worked the same way – for example, if a particular neighborhood was known to have a lot of shoplifters stealing, say, packs of gum. The whole neighborhood could find itself suddenly and without warning shut down – no power, no electricity, all roads blocked off and the whole neighborhood under martial law. And all this would happen on the say-so of the gum manufacturer who complained about their products being stolen frequently.

If that seems a bit excessive, consider that this is exactly what SOPA would do, except for copyright violation instead of petty shoplifting.

Online piracy – which is just shorthand for “copyright infringement on the Internet” – is not equivalent to physical theft, despite what some people would like you to believe. If anything, it is a lesser crime than physical theft, which is why SOPA is such a terrible idea – it is wildly out of proportion with the crime it is trying to prevent.

Unfairly Biased

If you have any doubt that the movie and music industries are the major reason why this bill exists, consider this: there is a clause in the act which specifically makes streaming copyrighted content a felony.

Remember that any type of content you can create is automatically covered by copyright. Your kindergartener’s crayon drawing? Covered by copyright. Your vacation photos and home movies? Covered by copyright. That sculpture you made back in art class in college? Covered by copyright. Even the words you’re reading right now are covered by copyright.

But what sorts of content can be “streamed?” Well, you can’t very well stream a drawing, or a photo, or a sculpture. But you can stream music and movies – which are the things that are specifically made into a felony by SOPA.

If that doesn’t convince you that this act was primarily written by and for the movie and music industries, I don’t know what will.

SOPA Must Die

There are so many things wrong with SOPA that I couldn’t hope to cover them all – but I’d like to think I’ve at least covered the big ones. On top of that, it doesn’t help that the people writing and debating this bill admit that they don’t understand the issues involved.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to think of ways that SOPA could be revised to make it less awful, but there simply is too much wrong with it to be worth salvaging – which is why SOPA must die. It simply is not salvageable as a piece of legislation, and trying to revise it just risks having some of its harmful provisions slip through. It should just be thrown away, and some other more specific and less broad legislation could be drafted instead.

Now, let’s be clear – I’m not saying that online copyright infringement isn’t a problem; far from it. But SOPA is not the answer. We already have the DMCA, which is not perfect (far from it, in fact), but it at least does not have the same problems I’ve outlined here (in particular, the DMCA at least does provide for due process, and it is a much more “surgical” tool for combating copyright infringement, unlike SOPA, which is more like a tactical nuclear bomb in comparison).

Unfortunately, right now the only voices Congress is hearing in regards to these issues come from the movie and music industries, which as I’ve said before, are the ones for whom SOPA (and its Senate cousin, the PROTECT IP Act) was written.

SOPA must be stopped, and it is up to us to remind Congress of this simple and inarguable fact.

If you haven’t done so already, call or email your representative and let them know what you think. Hearing the voices of the people is the only way a democracy can work – so speak now, or forever hold your [CENSORED FOR COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT].

Keith’s Anime Reviews: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

What would you do if you had the ability to go back and relive moments in time?

This is the basic premise of the anime The Girl who Leapt Through Time, a story of a girl (Makoto) who suddenly finds herself with the ability to “leap” through time.

This anime takes a slightly different approach from some other time-travel stories, in that it’s less about the actual traveling through time aspect (or how it’s done specifically), and more about the consequences of having such an ability, and how it can affect the people around you – as well as yourself.

This is an amazingly detailed and thought-provoking anime – so much so, that it could just as easily have been a live-action film (although the larger budget needed for that would probably have precluded it being made in the first place, so let’s be glad it was made as an anime).

Makoto is a pretty normal high school student – a teenager – and even when she gains the ability to “leap” through time, she still acts like one. Think about it – what would you do if you suddenly found you could jump through time as a teenager?

  • Spend all of your money? Go back in time and get it all over again.
  • Don’t like what’s for dinner? Jump back to yesterday when you had your favorite dish.
  • Do bad on a test? Jump back after getting the answers back and do it again.

This is precisely what Makoto does – at first – when she gains the titular ability. However, after a while she starts meddling in other people’s lives – trying to help them out. She’s not malicious or spiteful, she genuinely wants to help her friends and classmates, and she tries to use her power (and her Groundhog Day-like power to know how things will turn out) to make things better for them.

Unfortunately, she’s not very good at it, and she also comes to realize that there are limits on her power – making a perfect day for herself is easy, but trying to make things come out perfectly for everyone you know is much, much harder. Many times she screws things up terribly, and has to jump back in time just to un-do things.

Eventually, she thinks she’s gotten things as good as they can get (more or less), but that’s when she discovers another limit on her time-leaping powers… as well as a personal consequence of her use of those powers that is maybe a bit more than she can bear.

The animation is great – as befits an animated feature-length film – and at no time do things look stereotypically “anime” or cutesy for the sake of being cute. There are a few moments of CG animation cut in, which looks… jarring, to say the least; but these scenes are kind of supposed to be jarring, so it isn’t totally out of place.

The soundtrack to this anime is, quite simply, incredible – subtle and wistful at times, it really helps set the mood. There’s no pop or J-pop music in this soundtrack – instead, most of the music is classical or just subtle, atmospheric instrumental.

In the end, The Girl who Leapt through Time is an absolutely fantastic anime – no, scratch that… it is an absolutely fantastic movie (which just happens to be animated), and one that I think anyone would enjoy. Although it involves time travel, it is not sci-fi or anything; just a solid, timeless, classic, sometimes heartwarming, sometimes heart-wrenching story.

I highly recommend it.

Ten Years, Zero Progress

Ten years ago on this day, everyone in the whole United States – and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the rest of the world – all came together because of a terrible tragedy. We were all united on that day.

Fast forward 10 years, and you can see that very nearly all of that solidarity has gone right down the drain. If anything, we’ve become even more isolated and fragmented than we were before.

The most recent example (that I can think of) is the dreadfully childish bickering and last-minute compromise regarding the “raising the national debt limit” issue. With the threat of the entire country defaulting on its national debt looming, the best we could do was bicker and argue and refuse to do the obviously necessary thing until we were assured that our particular special interest group was not adversely affected by whatever solution was put forward. This is hardly the “united we stand” mentality that sprung up immediately after the events of 9/11.

Instead of a strong stance of “what’s best for the country as a whole,” we’ve fallen back on greedy individual power grabs – along the lines of “give me what I want, and screw everyone else.”

Instead of a strong, bold stance for freedom and liberty in the face of terrible adversity, we’ve instead become afraid of our own shadow, giving up any fundamental rights and spending any amount of money, so long as it’s “for security” (which has almost universally been “for a false sense of security”).

On this tenth anniversary of the events of 9/11/2001, I can’t help but look back at the past 10 years and think that we could have done better – we should have done better.

We can build memorials, give speeches, and make “remembering” videos all we like, but it is how we act that will truly be remembered.

I hope everyone can take this tenth anniversary to stop for a moment and reflect on how we’ve changed in these past 10 years, and to remember what it really meant to be united – to put aside differences in the face of the greater good – and consider what a powerful thing that is.

There will be a lot of appeals to patriotism and national pride today, and if that means anything to you, please take a moment to really consider the meaning behind the phrase “united we stand, divided we fall.”

9/11 is ten years behind us now – it’s time to stop being afraid, stop fighting amongst ourselves, stand strong, make the hard (but necessary) choices, and move forward into the future as a truly United States of America.

Protecting Them, Not You

There is a disturbing trend in politics and lawmaking that has developed over the last 10 years – one which I think everyone really needs to take a long, hard look at.

Over the last 10 years there’s been a lot of noise made over “security” and “protecting” and the like. But if you look more closely at what has actually been done, you’ll see that largely the laws, policies, wars, agencies, etc., that have been put into place are not actually here to protect you.

Instead, these things which have been done in the name of “security” actually have a quite different aim – they are designed explicitly to protect the people who came up with the law/policy/etc., not the “people” at large. Instead, you are simply meant to feel secure, without actually being secure.

I like to call this sort of thing “CYA syndrome,” or “cover your ass syndrome.” Because that’s really all it is.

Let’s take a look at some of the many, many things that have been done in the last 10 years:

Creation of the Department of Homeland Security

  • Supposed to: unify departments to increase information sharing so important information about legitimate threats are not missed
  • Actually: creates a huge bureaucratic monstrosity that is less responsive than the previous individual agencies.

War in Iraq

  • Supposed to: remove a highly dangerous dictator and get rid of a hiding place for terrorists
  • Actually: removed a not-quite-as-dangerous dictator and created more hiding places for terrorists (and inspired many more people to become terrorists because of resentment)

REAL ID Act

  • Supposed to: unify ID requirements across the country and make it impossible for anyone (not just terrorists) to get a fake ID, thus stopping them from ever being able to get on a plane, into a government building, etc.
  • Actually: unified ID requirements across some of the country, at huge cost to the states themselves, made the whole process much, much more annoying and difficult for the 99.999% of normal people, did not stop people from getting on planes with nefarious intentions.

Increased Airport Security

  • Supposed to: prevent another 9/11
  • Actually: hassles the traveling public via scope creep (always adding more restrictions based on the last failed attempt, even if it had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11)

All of these things are not so much to achieve a goal in and of themselves (if they even can), but rather to give those in power something to point to in case everything goes wrong. “We did this,” they’ll say, “so you can’t blame me.” Or, alternatively, before anything has gone wrong, those in power can point at these things and say “see? I’m tough, I’m doing things.” This is related to something called the “politician’s fallacy,” which says:

  1. Something must be done.
  2. This is something.
  3. Therefore, we must do it.

This of course results in poorly thought out solutions for urgent problems – sound familiar?

But there’s no incentive to properly think out solutions for these kinds of problems. Fast answers and swift action are all that matter in our short-attention-span world; nevermind that they are often wrong or contrary to our long-term success.

What is particularly infuriating about this is that nobody* seems to realize that this is going on.

As we come up on the anniversary of 9/11, I hope that everyone will step back and take a good, long, hard look at what’s been going on these past years – because we’re way past due for one. We’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes for far too long.

* Well, a sufficient majority, anyway.

Our Dangerous Obsession with Identity

Over the past 10 years, we’ve developed an obscene obsession with “identity,” and for all the wrong reasons.

ID CardAt every turn it seems like there are more requirements for “proof of identity,” or requests for ID. Somehow we’ve gotten it into our collective consciousness that being sure of someone’s identity removes all risk of fraud, theft, or crime – but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, stricter requirements for “proof of identity” are, largely, a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time.

Consider this example: the state where I currently live (New Jersey) has an insanely complicated “6 point system” for getting (or even renewing!) a driver’s license. (This is due, at least in part, to the stupid REAL ID Act, which I’ve written about before.) You need “6 points” worth of identification, with different forms of identification being given different point values. For example, a passport is worth 4 points, but a drivers license from any other state is only worth 1 point. And it’s not enough to just get the 6 points you need – you have to have at least one document from each of several categories! And as if that’s not enough, you need another separate document “proving” that you are a resident, which gives you no points, but you need it anyway.

This obsession with “proving identity” seems to stem from the misguided belief that knowing who someone is gives you some insight into what their intentions are. This is obviously a fallacy. So too is the idea that somehow people with sinister intentions would be unable to prove their identity (because all “bad guys” have fake names and use fake IDs, right?). Although a 5th grader would probably understand all of the holes in this logic, somehow this has become our de-facto operating principle at both the large corporation and government level.

Part of this, I think, stems from CYA syndrome, otherwise known as “cover your ass” syndrome.

You see, by forcing everyone to prove who they are, you do establish some sort of paper trail that can be useful after the fact in solving crimes that have already happened. But this is a very small benefit for a hugely cumbersome system of identity verification and re-verification.

It is somewhat of a tangent, but on a personal level I find this constant need to “prove” that I am who I say I am very insulting. This constant doubt of your sincerity and trustworthiness is, frankly, wearisome.

While it’s true that there are some holes in the systems we use for identification, our obsession with identity hasn’t really addressed these concerns in any meaningful way. People continue to get fake IDs, and those who wish to commit crimes (or perpetrate acts of terrorism) will do so, regardless of whether they were able to get a driver’s license or not. So in the end, this obsession with ID is really, truthfully, and honestly a complete waste of time.

You trust me on that, right?

Photo “ID Card” by Gareth Harper, used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.