The response to SOPA and Protect IP, two pieces of proposed legislation aiming to curb online piracy, has been intense and highly reactionary. In October, Yahoo attracted public attention by leaving the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for its support of SOPA. In November, tech giants including Google and Facebook wrote a joint letter to key Congressmen disputing aspects of SOPA that they considered overreaching. Media coverage of the House and Senate bills has been largely negative, focusing on a plethora of foreseeable technical challenges, economic burdens, threats to free speech, and on the belief that neither bill is capable of successfully eradicating Internet piracy. Popular response to SOPA in particular, the more far-reaching of the two bills, has been nothing short of outcry, with sites like Reddit flooding with posts by users opposed to the bill. When Wikipedia and Reddit (and Google, in spirit) finally underwent a content blackout, it marked the culmination of months of negative, reactionary fervor against SOPA and Protect IP.
In their current forms, neither bill is an acceptable piece of legislation, but the popular demand that they be scrapped altogether is equally unacceptable. While the failings of both bills will claim victims if the legislation is passed, online piracy will continue to claim equally real victims if no effort is made to mitigate the illegal practice. A much more forward-thinking reaction to SOPA arrived in the week leading up to the blackout, when President Barack Obama decided not to support the bill, delaying the bill’s consideration until at least February. In an official White House blog post, Obama’s staff officially stated its opposition to SOPA, but nonetheless committed to dramatically reducing online piracy in 2012 through some revised legislation. The truth is that online piracy is a very real issue today, and that a well-designed bill could greatly curb piracy while minimizing the negative consequences that have landed SOPA and Protect IP on trial.
To begin, online piracy is a real crime, and today’s victims of piracy deserve some legal recourse to protect their intellectual property. Movie studios, music producers, independent artists and most other content producers suffer from “rogue sites”: websites that are located in other countries and distribute copyrighted material for free, such as the notorious Pirate Bay based in Sweden. As a result, many ventures in the entertainment industry are becoming unprofitable.
Advocates for an open Internet argue that innovation, not legal protection, will keep content providers profitable. In some respects this is absolutely true; Netflix and Hulu are offering solid returns to TV networks, and 3D movies are drawing big crowds overseas and in America. Still, relying solely on innovation to protect content providers ignores the importance of rule of law in America, and also adversely affects content producers and consumers alike. For example, if movies weren’t so easy to pirate, studios would produce more interesting, risky films.
Assuming now that online piracy is worth fighting, how specifically does SOPA fail to accomplish its goal properly? In terms of technology, SOPA does actually offer strong solutions capable of significantly reducing online piracy without assigning any unnecessary economic burden to Internet service providers (ISPs). The bill would require ISPs to block data from IP addresses known to distribute pirated content using the best technology within the ISP’s means. This way, large ISPs such as Verizon and AT&T can use techniques such as deep packet inspection, in which an ISP reads data requested by users before delivering it to them, to outright block all requests to IP addresses from rogue sites. Simultaneously, smaller ISPs can employ less expensive techniques such as DNS blocking to deter some but not all traffic to rogue sites. Although the use of deep packet inspection has given rise to privacy concerns in the past, very light regulation of the process, if written into SOPA, would adequately resolve this.
While SOPA is technologically strong enough to combat online piracy, it is otherwise a misguided piece of legislation. SOPA makes search engines and sites with user-generated content responsible for any copyrighted materials that appear; this means that YouTube could be prosecuted and potentially shut down if it failed to remove content as harmless as a fan remix of a music video, and other such sites would be liable for similar offenses. Even Google, a largely unbiased search engine and an incredible conduit of open information, would be required to filter its results for links to copyrighted content. By forcing web companies to act as policemen, SOPA is not only a drain of economic resources, but a threat to free speech. In this, SOPA goes beyond the mission of curbing rogue sites, choosing to also target American companies that, under current law, are already required to remove content upon request from copyright holders anyway.
Both SOPA and Protect IP would dramatically change the Internet, and both would reduce piracy, but neither bill is without misguided ambitions or unnecessary consequences. The recent White House blog post, however, strongly suggests that Obama is pursuing a very sound solution to the problem of online privacy. With any hope, in the year 2012 we will see a revised bill that calls for the blocking of rogue sites using technologies within the financial means of companies both big and small, preserves user privacy through very light regulation of ISPs, and doesn’t disturb American companies or free speech by mandating unnecessary and unsolicited policing of content.