Why SOPA Must Die

SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) Must Die – and here’s why.

[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].

Culture Shock in the Digital Age

My thoughts on what constitutes “culture shock” these days for us always-connected Americans.

great bay in the daytimeAmanda and I recently got back from a trip to the Caribbean – specifically, to the island of Saint Martin – and while it was tropical and warm and lovely (you can see all my pictures from the trip here), it was also a bit of a culture shock – but not for the reasons you might think.

It wasn’t the food – there are enough tourists coming to this island to ensure that there’s always some typical American-style food near at hand if you aren’t feeling gastronomically adventurous.

It wasn’t the language – almost everyone spoke English, except for a few people in the remoter sections of the French side (naturally).

It wasn’t the fact that they use different money – the Dutch side pretty much exclusively uses the US Dollar (although their official currency is still the Netherlands Antillean guilder), and although the French side officially uses the Euro, they also accept US dollars pretty much everywhere (although sometimes at a slightly unfavorable fixed exchange rate).

It wasn’t the people – aside from their crrraaaazy driving, they were pretty much like people anywhere else, with the usual variations for culture (Dutch/French) and for climate.

It wasn’t the culture – although it was quite a bit more “relaxed” than our often tense, high-strung east-coast culture here in the US, it was quiet and nice and not at all jarring.

No, the biggest shock to us was the almost complete lack of Internet access.wireless icon

Now, as Americans, we’ve become accustomed (in just a few short years, if you think about it) to ubiquitous, free, unlimited high-speed Internet access (via both wired and wireless connections).

We’ve become so used to it that we sort of expect it wherever we go – we expect it to be always on, and always available, no matter where we go. We expect to be able to pull out our iPhone or whatever and update our Facebook page from wherever we are in the world.

And when we finally find ourselves someplace where this is no longer true, it can be a bit of a shock!

In Saint Martin, for example, we landed and found that there was NO signal whatsoever for Amanda’s iPhone – it just could not pick up anything. It detected some of the cell networks on the island, but it could not connect to them. (Ironically, my old, old, old Motorola RAZR phone connected just fine – but of course it can’t browse the web or send email or really do anything besides make calls and send text messages.) Even at the airport there was no Wi-Fi available (not even the paid variety!).

Our situation did not improve when we arrived at our hotel, either. Again, our expectations were tempered by what was commonplace back in the US – where a hotel without Wi-Fi, or at least a wired Internet connection in each room was considered an abomination.

Oh, the hotel had Wi-Fi – but it wasn’t free. In fact, it was ridiculously expensive (by our standards, at least). And it was also slow – a single 1 MB connection was shared by the entire hotel (both guests and staff!). And of course it was only accessible from your room – there was not enough range to keep using the Internet all the way down to the pool or the beach, even when the pool and beach were only a couple dozen feet from the hotel.

So in the end, our use of Internet was limited to short bursts in our hotel room, checking mobile sites (mainly Gmail) that were very light & fast, so that they didn’t feel abysmally slow on the pitiful 1 MB connection.

In truth though, it was a very eye-opening experience – a reminder that although the Internet has indeed become ubiquitous in many places, it is not everywhere… and even in places where it is available, sometimes that availability is much more limited than we here in the US are used to. It also made me realize just how much we take it (the Internet) for granted sometimes.

But at the same time, it was also interesting to “unplug” for a while – easy enough for me to do, actually – and remember what life was like before we were all electronically connected to one another.

Although I wait eagerly for the day when fast Internet is freely (or cheaply) available world-wide, I think it’s still worth having a few places where the Internet can’t reach, if only to let us “escape” it for a while. Even though going somewhere without Internet can be a bit of a culture shock to those of us who’ve grown up with it, I think it’s still good to get culturally shocked from time to time – just to keep us all on our toes, and remind us of how good we all have it.

Why I Will Never Use Facebook

Why I will never be taken in by the hype, and never join Facebook (or other social networking sites).

Recently someone asked me why I don’t have a Facebook account.

The simplest answer I could come up with was that I simply don’t need it – for me, Facebook is redundant.

The person who asked me tried to tell me how great Facebook was, and how you could do so many things with it, like connecting with friends, keeping up-to-date on what you’re doing, and easily share photos (among other things).

But the thing is… I can already do all of those things without Facebook. So what’s the point? Where’s the benefit for me?

I mean, look at it this way:

  • I own my own domain and have my own website.
  • I have and maintain my own blog, which means I have total control over every aspect of it (appearance, function, etc.) and to which people can “subscribe” using the RSS feed (an open standard).
  • For sharing pictures, I have a Flickr Pro account. Because Flickr is dedicated to sharing photos, it does a really good job of it.
  • For messaging, I have IM and Twitter and of course email.
  • For people trying to find me, I have a Google Profile (and of course I am not a hard person to find – one of the advantages of having a very unique name!).

(There’s also the fact that I consider Facebook – and all similar sites – as being the modern reincarnations of  the crappy websites that populated Geocities back in the early days of the web.)

So really, Facebook offers no compelling advantages for me – no real reason for me to use it. Everything it can do, I can already do without having to sign up for yet another online account.

Don’t Be a Slave to Technology

Despite being a huge computer geek, I am not a slave to technology – and I would say in today’s world it is increasingly important NOT to be a slave to technology… despite the fact that an increasing number of people are.

It might come as a surprise to some people to hear me say that I am not a slave to technology – after all, I’m a self-described “computer geek.” You’d think, therefore, that I walk around with an iPhone or Blackberry (or both!) strapped to my chest at all times, checking email and looking up information on-line everywhere I go.

However, you couldn’t be farther from the truth.

While it’s true that I am a major computer geek, and I would love to have (say) a nice little netbook for looking up information, sending email, writing blog posts, etc., the fact of the matter is that it’s because I’m a computer geek that I’m not a slave to technology.

Because I’m confident about it, I don’t allow it to control me – I control it.

For example, I know many people with mobile email who are, quite frankly, addicted to it (think: crackberry). They’re always checking email – all the time – no matter where they are. Even if I had a mobile email device (which I don’t), I wouldn’t be checking email all the time. As it is, I don’t check email often, even when I’m at my computer. I’m confident enough with the technology to know that I don’t need to answer every single email at the moment it comes in – that I don’t need to be “on-line” all the time. I control the technology – I use it when I want to, not the other way around.

Another example is when the power goes out – for people who are slaves to technology, to computers, the Internet, email, Twitter, social networking, what have you, the power going out is like having their “fix” cut off – they don’t know what to do. Without email, chat, or whatever, they’re lost. They’re so badly enslaved that they don’t know what to do when they are “freed” from it, for whatever reason.

As for me, even though I spend my entire day at the computer (and often much of the evening, too), writing code, answering emails, being online, writing blog posts like this one and so on – when the power goes out, I just shrug, grab a book from my bookshelf, and go read. Or, if it’s dark, I’ll go for a drive, or a walk, or just plain go to bed.

I control the technology around me – it doesn’t control me.

For many people today, the opposite is true. It’s worth it to sit and really take a look at yourself and see whether you are one of those people – whether you’re a slave to technology. Even in today’s connected world, it’s important to be able to just leave it all behind sometimes, to just “let go.” It’s the difference between being controlled and being in control.

Making ’em Like They Used To

Well, it’s been a little over a week now, and the verdict on the router-reset issue is:

Linksys Wins!

internetSince switching to the Linksys, I’ve had zero router resets and my Internet connection has been rock-solid. My Mozy online backup has been able to run each night without interruption, and during the day my work (which often involves some IP-based telephony) has been fine as well (nothing more irritating than making an IP-phone call and having your router reset!!).

I still don’t know what was causing the Netgear router to reset frequently – but at this point, I really don’t care. I don’t know what I’m going to do with the Netgear router, either – I’d sell it or give it away, but knowing that it has this problem makes me feel guilty. So I guess… into the great bit-bucket in the sky it must go.

I’ll be sad to see the Netgear go – I always had a soft spot for Netgear in the past. Their products retained that “metal enclosure” look long after Linksys and others had jumped on the “plastic” shell bandwagon back when home networking became “popular.” And those metal-shelled products were easy to rack mount, with the right brackets, which was always nice.

But now, all home networking products are plastic-shelled, and some (it would seem) are no longer as high-quality as they once were.

As for me – I’m just glad my ‘net connection is reliable again. Internet, ahoy!

Icon courtesy of the Crystal Icon Set.