January 08, 2012

Thinking the Unthinkable About SOPA

Blog Update (January 10, 2012): Banners, Splashes, and KILLSOPA.ORG

With key votes on SOPA -- the Stop Online Piracy Act -- likely to occur in the very near future, we now find ourselves forced into at least considering courses of action if SOPA (and companion legislation like PIPA -- the Protect IP Act) should pass and be signed into law.

The tea leaves on this are particularly difficult to interpret, but they're emitting a pretty bad odor already.

Entertainment industry supporters of SOPA immediately blasted a much more sensible proposed alternative. Odds are that this alternate timeline will be pinched off in short order.

There has been little change among SOPA supporters as a whole. We can discount disingenuous alterations of position by sleazy operations like Go Daddy simply as the debased pandering that they are.

There had been signs that at least some Congressmen pushing SOPA were starting to have at least a few second thoughts about the technical ramifications. But with SOPA's chief sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) now figuratively giving the finger to SOPA opponents, saying that we are a "vocal minority" -- "because they’re strident doesn’t mean they’re either legitimate or large in number" -- I would not want to bet the farm on substantive changes of the magnitude needed to prevent SOPA from being a total disaster for the Internet and its users.

The outcome of PIPA in the Senate also can't be known with certainty, but signs are increasing that there is sufficient support to move the legislation fairly shortly.

And I would not count on a presidential veto regarding Internet censorship in an election year, given that the resulting legislation may quite possibly arrive with veto-proof majorities. The pro-SOPA entertainment behemoths have spent their money on Congress with great precision.

I will admit that I find Lamar Smith's comments and attitude particularly infuriating.

Most of these SOPA-supporting politicians probably wouldn't know where to put a USB plug if their lives depended on it (though I'd be tempted to offer a suggestion about a possible worthy destination).

And now they're talking down to us from Mt. Olympus on high, proclaiming to the technical world that our concerns don't matter, don't exist, aren't real, and that we should just shut up and let them and their "sugar daddies" run the Internet their way.

Of course, they can't run the Net without us. And unless there's a secret plan to shackle system administrators to consoles with armed guards pointing loaded weapons at our heads, the good will of the technical community will remain essential to the health and continued operation of the Net and its resources.

SOPA contains language that makes "circumvention" systems illegal (though the associated penalties' reach outside the U.S. seems highly debatable).

But again, unless the politicians and MPAA/RIAA bigwigs are skilled at Linux server debugging, IPv6, and the rest of our talents that they apparently view with such little regard, throwing us all in cells will probably result in an, uh, considerable drop in the overall Internet user experience -- like the worst cable and telephone outage you've ever heard of, multiplied by several orders of magnitude at least.

There have been calls from some quarters for demonstrations to help make it clear to Congress that their ability to operate the Internet without our kind assistance is severely limited (i.e. nonexistent).

Some suggested attention grabbers have been concepts such as special anti-SOPA "splash" pages that would appear when users accessed sites, before the actually requested pages would display. There have also been calls for actual shutdowns of major sites for limited periods of time as a dramatic reminder of who actually makes the Internet work.

I'm not particularly enthusiastic about this latter option, unless the period involved was extremely brief. Actually cutting off access, even for relatively short periods of time, could potentially backfire if important information or services were not available in a critical situation that might just happen to occur during the planned outage.

The idea of anti-SOPA banners and splash pages (linking to detailed, plain language explanations of what people will lose under SOPA/PIPA regimes) seems far more attractive.

As technologists we have not been particularly effective in getting word out to the non-technical community about how incredibly dangerous such legislation is to ordinary Internet users. We do a lot of "preaching to the choir" -- but it's everyone else who really needs to be informed.

Splash pages, banners, and other "in your face" techniques do run the risk of becoming annoying if prolonged, but if we explain our case clearly I suspect that most Internet users will understand why these methods are being employed and why the risks of SOPA/PIPA had made this approach necessary.

It is extremely unfortunate that we have come to this state of affairs, where we need to be thinking about circumvention measures simply to ensure freedom of Internet communications, and are considering vast campaigns to explain what crucial aspects of the Internet have now become enormously at risk -- at the hands of a selfish SOPA cadre that desperately wishes to remake the Internet in their own image.

If Lemar Smith is correct, if those of us opposing SOPA are really just few in number and of no real significant consequence, the proponents of SOPA have nothing to worry about.

Then again, if Smith is wrong, the SOPA push could be opening up a Pandora's box the like of which the tech world has never seen before.

We shall see.


Blog Update (January 10, 2012): Banners, Splashes, and KILLSOPA.ORG

Posted by Lauren at January 8, 2012 03:14 PM | Permalink
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