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The Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Internet Censorship Bills

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The SOPA bill and the Protect IP Act are threatening the freedom of the Internet.

CREDIT: iStockphoto / Don Bayley

Careful— if some elected officials have their way, embedding that crazy Lady Gaga YouTube cover on your Facebook page could make you a felon.

It’s a Bizarro World scenario that could actually happen under the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill in discussion in the House that has sparked widespread outrage among technology industries, civil liberties organizations, and ordinary Internet users.

Both SOPA and its Senate-side cousin, the Protect IP Act (PIPA), are intended to protect the entertainment industry from piracy by cracking down on “rogue websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods,” especially foreign sites.

But both experts and observers say the bills are so broad that they could do catastrophic damage to the Internet while failing to solve the problems they set out to. 

SOPA in particular would make a felony out of “streaming” copyrighted material—including amateur performances like the kind found on YouTube—but both bills go far beyond that to target entire websites, including domestic ones. 

Under current law, if an Internet user posts infringing content on a website, an intellectual property holder—the person who rightfully owns the copyright on such content—can take steps to have it removed. But under SOPA and PIPA, a single rights holder could cut off the entire site’s funding, block it from search engines, or send the site owners to court—simply because the site failed to be proactive enough to prevent infringing content from being posted.

All copyright holders have to do is send a letter; website owners have to comb through thousands of posts per minute. 

“We don't allow people to sue AT&T because the telephone was used in commission of a crime and we don't sue Ford because someone crashed their pickup truck into another car,” writes Mike Mesnick, a blogger at TechDirt who has covered the bills extensively.

Yet this is precisely the standard that SOPA and PIPA threaten to impose on the Internet.

Social networking giants like YouTube or Facebook might not fall apart under the new laws, but they would be seriously threatened.

At far greater risk would be the next YouTube or Facebook—smaller sites that don’t have the resources to face a court challenge, or whose venture capitalists would be scared off by the new laws. Popular kitschy shopping site Etsy, user-uploaded photo site Flickr, and the video website Vimeo all face new risks for accepting user-created content.

And then there’s the part where the entire fabric of the Internet gets ripped apart—and we become China—without even beginning to fix the piracy problem.

The U.S. government would use Domain Name System blocking against infringing websites, which is precisely the method China uses to censor its Internet—not a stellar example of freedom to the international community. 

The Domain Name System is what gives us domain names like “campusprogress.org” instead of a hard-to-remember series of numbers, and blocking domains would fragment and undermine the security of the Internet. 

In this white paper [PDF] five  specialists on the system lay out specific security concerns and note how “filtering of one domain potentially affect[s] users’ ability to reach non-infringing Internet content.” For example, one user uploading copyrighted content onto her YouTube account could mean the whole site would be blocked or shut down.

Further, the authors write, “DNS filters would be evaded easily, and would likely prove ineffective at reducing online infringement.” Pirates could simply type in a numerical IP address, or use proxy servers (which are currently legal but could be threatened under SOPA/PIPA), or use any number of other workarounds that are already being dreamed up.

There is also a persuasive argument that trying to stop piracy is the wrong approach for the entertainment industry—that innovation is a much better business strategy than litigating.

In any case, the Internet is fighting back. Activists declared Nov. 16 as “American Censorship Day,” and many sites, including Tumblr, “censored” their sites. According to organizers, the action inspired 3.6 calls to Congress per second at one point.

Given that congressional hearings on SOPA have so far stacked the deck against opponents of the legislation, and given that the only-slightly-less-awful PIPA bill may be pushed through as a “compromise,” it seems that Congress needs to hear from even more people that censoring the Internet and stifling innovation is not the way to go.

Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.

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