What is SOPA and why we can and should stop it

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a piece of legislation currently before the House Judiciary Committee, in the United States House of Representatives. It builds on the similar PRO-IP Act and the corresponding Protect IP Act of 2008.

Simply put, SOPA and Protect IP are a kill switch for any content on the internet which might be uncomfortable for politicians or the private corporations who own them. It is being billed as legislation which would end, or seriously impact upon the illegal distribution of music and movies, via Peer to Peer networks. But in reality, it allows any private corporation to remove anything they want removed from the internet with total impunity.

This is not some conspiracy theory, mustered up by stoned teenagers. Nor is it a leftwing or rightwing, liberal or conservative “thing”. It is something which is happening now and it really does affect everyone, including you. Yes you, who thinks you’re OK, because once in a while you pay for something on iTunes or Netflix. It’s not about the actual media you consume, it’s about the way in which that media is distributed.

The appearance given to this legislation; that it is going through a “consultation process”, is a total facade, which wouldn’t you know it, the corporations who would benefit from it the most aren’t reporting on their news networks. In reality, the changes to the law and to the United States constitution itself, which it affects, have already begun to be enforced.

Most of the people in the House of Representatives who will officially pass this into law have no idea what it is and are being used as nothing more than a glorified rubber stamp. While this has become a familiar story by now, in common with many other such moves by corporate America to usurp the government by the people for the people to suite their own ends, this once again has massive repercussions for those of us living outside of the US, as well as those trapped within its borders.

Alicia Keys: A pirate

In late 2011, the popular file sharing website Megaupload published a promotional video featuring musicians like Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and Alicia Keys singing the praises of their service.

Megaupload’s primary purpose is to solve a perennial problem when working with large documents, such as .aiff and .wav uncompressed audio files. It allows large attachments to be sent from one user to another without using email. Most email services only allow 20 or 30 megabytes of attachments to any one message, and the average .aiff of a 4 minute music track is about 1 gigabyte. For technical reasons, to do with the transfer protocols which are used to route email across the internet, this tends to make sending large attachments unreliable and slow.

Megaupload gets around this problem and is, therefore, ideal for musicians who want to send many high resolution takes of their performances, perhaps from their home studio, to any one of the artists who are collaborating on the track with them, all around the world.

On December 9th, 2011, “The Mega Song” was removed from YouTube following a take-down request from Universal Music Group (UMG), despite that they did not own the copyright on any of the material used in the music video. Universal claimed that this was “pursuant to the UMG-YouTube agreement,” which gives UMG “the right to block or remove user-posted videos through YouTube’s Content Management System based on a number of contractually specified criteria.” But YouTube denied that any such agreement with UMG was in place and subsequently reinstated the video.

UMG and other media giants, clearly want to paint services like Megaupload in the role of the bad guy, just because a handful of their users post copyrighted content to their website. But Megaupload actively remove media from their servers which breaches copyright all the time. Plus, it’s not possible to search for filenames posted to Megaupload, so it’s not as if they’re offering a catalogue of media, and screaming free-for-all.

All Megaupload provides, is an A to B file transfer service. So because UMG and other media giants are incapable of competing with them, they simply seek to change the law so that they are the ones who decide how their rivals operate.

Megaupload offers a service people want to use. It’s convenient and it’s free. If and when Megaupload decided to monetize their services, it would pose a real threat to the existing distribution model which the media giants are clinging onto for dear life; an erosion of their grip on music and movies which started way back when Apple iTunes first began to offer a legit alternative to Napster.

The failure of the media giants to catch up, yet again, poses the real possibility that, this time, in an attempt to crush their opposition, they might break the entire internet.

Now, to anyone who followed the Shawn Karon debacle the Megaupload / YouTube story isn’t really news. YouTube’s take-down request procedure has long been open to abuse, because it presumes that the claimant is telling the truth about owning a particular video clip, which someone else is using without permission, before asking the claimant to present any proof of their ownership.

YouTube’s hands are somewhat tied, because as the law currently stands, if indeed the claimant did own the rights to the content they have requested be removed and YouTube continued to allow it to be hosted on their site nonetheless, Google, YouTube’s owners, would become liable for any losses incurred as a result of their failure to comply with the take-down request.

But instead of fixing the existing laws, so YouTube and other similar services have their position clarified, the music and movie industry are instead to force draconian legislation through which would effectively allow them to flip the switch on anything they deem unsuitable, without having to ask nicely or explain why — and, theoretically, it wouldn’t just be the offending video clip which was removed, it would be the entire YouTube website. Read that last line again, until it sinks in just how dangerous this legislation really is.

How the internet works:
When you type a website name into the address box, or open a bookmark or click a link, your web browser asks your Internet Service Provider to send data to your computer which relates to that website’s name. Website names are technically knowns as Domains and the computers at your Internet Service Provider which negotiate this transaction on your behalf, are called Domain Name Servers. If you turn off the Domain Name Server that tells your web browser what to draw in the screen, when you visit a website, you effectively censor that website’s content.

This is the method used by the Chinese government to silence people who want to learn about the massacre at Tiananmen Square, for example. Google, for a while, went along with this Chinese government request, on the Chinese language version of their search results, but later refused to comply and consequently had to shut-up operations in the world’s fastest growing economy.

Such moral leadership in the technology sector isn’t as rare as your inner cynic might at first fear. Most of the websites which are, today, household names, just 5 years ago were the startups of young entrepreneurs who dared to imagine that they could change the world though ethical business practices which don’t just pay lip service to human rights and free speech, but actively protect and encourage other businesses who do the same.

It may well be a trite and perhaps even a little hammy or naive utopian vision, destined to be crushed under the wheels of reality, but in the belief that a better world might emerge from the co-ordinated efforts of internet users around the world, many companies have publicly opposed SOPA and Protect IP and lobbied to have it blocked.

Unfortunately there has also been a fair smattering of companies who have endorsed it; most notably Microsoft and GoDaddy — the latter being a Domain Name Registrar who, wouldn’t you know it, under the terms of the proposal they helped draft, would be exempt from having their domain names blocked. Indeed, thanks to GoDaddy.com’s endorsement of SOPA and Protect IP, a number of high profile websites, including Wikipedia, have switched to other DNS providers in public protest.

The upshot:
The worry, is that this legislation might be a genuine attempt to stop online piracy, whose unintended effects, would be to silence people who are critical of a particularly powerful lobby – like the oil and gas industry, or financial services for example.

We have to ask, what if the Megaupload video, instead of being a harmless musical promotion of a website, was footage of protestors being beaten with clubs, by private security contractors, outside an oil refinery which leaks toxins into the atmosphere, because it operates in a territory where politicians have been bought off and the workers and locals are too poor to be allowed a voice?

What if Universal Music Group, in the belief that they are entitled to protect their content with such vigour, that they inadvertently make it possible for someone running for President of the United States, to literally disconnect anyone who uses the internet to blog about their taking kickbacks from big tobacco?

Simply put, this is the kill switch large corporations and the corrupt politicians they own have been waiting for, since the internet was first introduced. We must fight it.

Mozilla, makers of the Firefox web browser and the foundation which has spearheaded a number of game changing open source initiatives in the past, has an excellent page of information on how US citizens can contact their political representatives and explain to them why it is important they actually read the legislation they’re being told to vote on, by their corporate sponsors.

https://donate.mozilla.org/page/s/SOPA?source=sopa_page

Please do all you can to spread the word about this. Here is a huge list of links, with which to inform yourself and other people about the ramifications of SOPA:

http://www.reddit.com/r/SOPA/search?q=sopa&sort=top&restrict_sr=on

Please share them on Facebook, twitter and other social media websites, so that together we can stop these ridiculous and dangerous laws from passing.

4 comments on “What is SOPA and why we can and should stop it

  1. Scary stuff.

    This seems incorrect however: “…the average .aiff of a 4 minute music track is about 1 gigabyte.” Four minutes of uncompressed music on a CD is about 40 megabytes. The equivalent iTunes+ file (at 256 kb/s) would be about 8 megabytes.

    I assume multi-track masters will be much larger, but these are only going to be exchanged as private transactions — not made available to the general public and therefore not likely to be seen as a threat to intellectual property rights.

    This whole area is a minefield. Cory Doctorow has some interesting insights.

  2. Don’t forget to add your DeSopa 1.2 to firefox.

    While you’re at it, install HTTPS Everywhere 1.2

    Good article. Thanks for posting it. Its getting crazy out there.

    Ron Paul 2012 will end most of this.

    **Warning –If you’re not using Mozilla Firefox…tisk, tisk. You’re Geek Card might get revoked.

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