November 17, 2011

Why SOPA Censorship Is Actually Aimed at Google

As I've discussed very recently in Congress Declares War on the Global Internet - Internet Replies "Bring It On!" and The Coming Fascist Internet, there are many reasons to hate and fear Congress' efforts to censor and control the Internet via SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act).

It obvious how such powers -- focused on the U.S. using unilateral leverage over the Domain Name System (DNS) to impose its views of "appropriate" Web materials globally -- would be abused, and expanded over time. If it's appropriate to shut down sites to protect the profits of Disney or Universal, every group concerned about items on the Net that they consider to be objectionable or dangerous -- or even just "inappropriate for children -- will be demanding Congress grant them similar Web censorship rights. "After all," they'll say, "aren't our children at least as important as entertainment industry profits?"

Notably, the anti-circumvention criminalization measures in SOPA would appear to mandate that any method of finding Web sites that is not subject to government control could be considered illicit.

And what is the main way that most people actually do find Web sites these days?

Most of us depend less and less on the confusing and often misleading mess of domain names. Without a doubt, search engines are the primary site discovery mechanism now, with Google obviously leading that pack.

SOPA is cognizant of this fact, by requiring search engines to remove sites from search results essentially on demand when sites have been accused of being primarily involved in "piracy"(not restricted only to sites that actually distribute pirated materials, but also sites that link to such items).

A simple thought experiment reveals why SOPA's model will fail to control piracy as its proponents wish, and why calls for its vast expansion -- primarily aimed at censoring Google -- can be anticipated.

SOPA, PIPA, et al. are generally focused currently on the concept of sites that are "centralized" repositories of "pirated" data, and sites that specialize in providing links and other information that aid discovery of those primary sources.

These legislative efforts assume that by "disappearing" such sites from the DNS and search engines, users will be unable to find the materials of interest, even if the primary repositories are operating in foreign jurisdictions not under direct U.S. control.

So let's think about this. Imagine that there are indeed a number of (possibly stable, possibly frequently moved) central sites that store large numbers of "pirated" files, and known sites that specialize in linking to those downloading sites (perhaps torrent-related, perhaps not). The U.S. knows where these sites are, and uses SOPA powers to remove them all from the DNS, and to order Google (plus other search engines under U.S. jurisdiction) to remove these sites from their search results.

But the repository sites in this example aren't actually shut down, only their names and search results have been liquidated.

If you could find these repository sites, you could still access the files, through use of IP addresses rather than domain names.

Now let's imagine that a large number of sites unrelated to "pirated" files, but sympathetic to free speech concerns, decided that they'd each list (on a sort of "by the way" basis) just a few -- perhaps even one each -- IP address links to "forbidden" material at those repositories (perhaps in a tiny font at the bottom of their home pages) open to Google and other search engine spidering.

What do we now have? It would seem we have a vast, distributed index that could be used to access censored materials despite government DNS takedown orders and the removal of primary linking sites from search results (also under government order).

Under this model, if you go to your favorite search engine looking for a particular movie (or whatever censored materials are of interest), you'll still likely find lots of results that lead to those forbidden repositories, even though no sites acting primarily to distribute those links are involved!

The reaction of censorship proponents would seem predictable -- they would demand that Google and other search engines remove pages/sites from search results even if there's a single mention of a link leading to "offending" material, regardless of the other data on those pages and sites.

In other words, proponents would demand a vast expansion of site censorship with enormous collateral effects, by moving from a "primarily engaged in" to a "merest mention of" approach -- with Google and other search engines the focus of their demands.

Combine this scenario with the likely expansion of topics where censorship will be demanded, plus the ability of sites to rapidly alter their configurations to fight back against such demands, and we have all of the necessary components for Internet freedom of speech wars without end.

This demonstrates that search engines are crucial agents toward helping to assure free speech on the Net, and so will be under constant attack by those forces who wish to restrict speech in ever more numerous ways.

It's crucial to push back on censorship attempts -- even those wrapped in the flag of ostensibly laudable motives -- and particularly when governments endeavor to convert search sites into customized censorship engines.

Anyone who publicly joins this battle for Internet free speech is likely to be falsely branded as a supporter of piracy and evil. But in fact, censorship, especially government ordered censorship, is an ultimate evil unto itself, and restrictions on speech can normally only be reasonably justified in extreme and imminent cases of public safety -- and even then, history shows us that the "public safety" excuse has often been abused by governments around the world.

Ultimately, the way to make the world better is with more reality, more information, more knowledge. Unmuzzled truth will almost always triumph over evil in the long run. That's why so many special interests try to keep that muzzle firmly in place.

And that's why fighting for free speech on the Internet is so very important for us all.


Posted by Lauren at November 17, 2011 11:50 AM | Permalink
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