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What the Internet Needs

posted Jan 19, 2012, 11:53 AM by Kyle Willey   [ updated Jan 19, 2012, 11:54 AM ]
    I believe that SOPA and PIPA aren't correct for the internet. Why? Picture this: A shop owner happens to have a regular customer who moonlights in selling illegal narcotics. The police get involved, and they go in and shut down the shop.

    I'm not saying that the shop owner in this example shouldn't kick out his customer, but the question is one of "Is he legally responsible to?". SOPA and PIPA would say yes. The problem with this is that the shop is a relatively flawed analogy of a website. And there's a number of reasons for this; there's just no way that someone like me, who writes and keeps a website as a hobby, could necessarily police his site 24/7.  However, unlike this traditional store, websites stay online all the time, unless there's downtime. Similarly, websites are often in non-US jurisdictions, as are their visitors. While one would make a poor case at best that someone who comes from an area in which narcotics are legal should be able to sell them in the United States, websites tend to bypass nationalism-even on this site I've had visitors from nations with different copyright laws than the US.

    And part of the problem with SOPA/PIPA is that if they post a link to a site dedicated to piracy, mine goes down. Now, admittedly, Google terms are actually that I have to remove it ASAP (or block it entirely), but that's not difficult on a site with relatively few readers. Let's look at a site the scope of Facebook. With millions of users, I'm willing to bet that someone on Facebook has posted something they shouldn't have. Now, I'm not saying the law would be used for that, but it's way too vague. Similarly, we should look at who's pursuing the laws, and who their targets are.

    Are we going to see massive lawsuits against software distribution portals like CNET that distribute software that could be used for piracy? Unlikely, their parent corporations sponsored the bills. Even from a less cynical standpoint, they're "hardened targets" for lawsuits because they have a dedicated legal team. It's more likely that we'll see college students or elderly people hit with massive lawsuits and potentially even prison time when they link to something they shouldn't. Which, of course, assumes wrongdoing is even necessary; there were strings of scandals a couple years ago that I read about on BBC where there were issues in determining who pirated software, leading to people who didn't even own computers ever getting sued. I'm pretty sure some of this could have been "identity theft" related where someone lied about their name and such, and others where someone got onto an unsecured Wi-Fi network and downloaded something illegal.

    Even if there were proper ways to address the potentials for wrongful identification of who was doing the downloading (which there probably aren't really, sans getting computers and picking their hard drives apart and tearing through millions of files accrued over the years to determine if the user actually pirated something, or using a more intrusive spyware solution), we're not even sure how to legally handle these cases. In the physical world there's a lot more chance for damages, and quite frankly I don't know anyone who got the sort of punishments that I've heard about SOPA/PIPA providing for shoplifting, though I'd say that shoplifting is certainly more likely to have far-reaching consequences than sharing a illicit link or a .mp3 file. Piracy is wrong, don't get me there, but is it a felony? I mean, I'd like to see people who get all the stuff I buy for free actually have to pay for it, but DRM and pretty much everything else doesn't work, but now I'm getting off track.

    Similarly, there isn't a solution for actually verifying that sites that are hit with copyright claims are actually guilty-I've heard rumors that some of what Anonymous posts gets taken down not because of real copyright violations but rather because of a sort of foul play, courtesy of Scientology. Of course, this may just be exaggeration, but it still is very much possible given the policies of most websites. SOPA/PIPA would apply this concept to the internet itself. The DNS servers that tell your web browsers where to go to when you visit this very page could have to take down any entries that are associated with piracy, without proper verification. No court cases beforehand, no impartial observer (from what I've heard), just someone who feels that you could potentially violate one of their copyright claims.

    Of course, this depends on an assumption that copyright law is valid as is-which is a matter of debate that I won't get too far into. On a lighter point, however, one of the congressmen who supports SOPA got massive flak from Creative Commons the other week because he failed to attribute a CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 (if I recall correctly) photograph. In other words, not really paying attention to fair use (which is as hotly debated as any other part of copyright law), and essentially doing the sort of stuff that SOPA says could get you taken offline, which almost points out how draconian the law can be, since there was obviously no piracy intended.

    I'd like to see a good solution to piracy that doesn't come with potentials for horrible abuses. If you want to contribute, I do have a comments section below.
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