There’s been a lot of buzz lately about SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), a controversial bill intended to fight online piracy. If you’re a fan of the Pirate Party then I don’t really need to give you any motivation to hate this one, but here’s a quick primer for the rest of you.
Assuming you, like many folks, disagree with internet piracy at first glance this sounds like something you should be supporting. I mean, you want to stop online piracy and that’s the name of the bill. It’s like voting for the “Stop People Who Kick Cute Puppies” bill – who doesn’t want to stop people from kicking puppies?
Well, what if the SPWKCP bill allowed police to execute, without a trial, anyone found to have a tuft of fur on or near their shoes? That’s a big bag of crazy in pretty wrapping paper! What’s more, the real puppy-kickers will just start cleaning their shoes a little better – like some of them probably already do.
It’s the same thing with SOPA. It’s not even a question of whether you’re willing to trade some freedom or privacy for security and a cozy feeling that your intellectual property is somehow harder to steal – none of the benefits actually exist at all so you’re paying the high price for literally nothing.
There are politics behind whether ISPs or sites like YouTube should be held accountable for what their customers do (presumably) without their knowledge, how much they should be allowed to snoop on your activities to prevent piracy and how much (if any) censorship is OK – these are not the points I’m going to argue, because they’re politics and there’s no way to win that argument. What I can argue, however, is technology. What does SOPA allow the government, technologically, to do? Wipe out DNS entries.
For the uninitiated, DNS is one of the protocols behind the scenes on the internet. Every computer connected to the internet, including the servers that send us our daily dose of cat videos, has a unique IP address. These addresses are represented as a set of four numbers ranging from 0 to 255 separated by periods. The Bitcoin Forums, for example, are hosted at 184.108.40.206. Unfortunately people aren’t as good at remembering numbers as computers are, so we created the Domain Naming System (DNS). With DNS, your ISP operates a server, which talk to a bunch of other servers and they translate friendly names like bitcointalk.org into numbers like 220.127.116.11. If you’ve ever registered a domain name you’ve actually paid someone to create a new entry in one of these servers which then propagates out to other servers.
SOPA gives the government the ability to demand that your ISP delete one of these entries, or otherwise cause it to return an invalid IP address. It also gives your ISP the ability to do this preemptively if it thinks you might be in violation of some law or another. Think about that for a minute – the only effect is that you can no longer type the friendly name… If you’re a tech-savvy fellow (and what pirate isn’t) you can still access the site via its IP address. Let’s also not forget that a savvy user could simply tell his computer to use a DNS server overseas somewhere that isn’t being affected by SOPA, add HOSTS file entries to map names to IPs for him, use a local DNS server, an overseas proxy… The list goes on and on because at some point most techies have had an accidental loss of DNS service and have already solved that problem. There are literally backup systems waiting to route around SOPA – it stops nothing.
But looking beyond piracy and into more illicit worlds – like trade in illicit substances or child pornography – we see technologies like TOR, I2P, FreeNet and many others that truly illustrate why this won’t work…
The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.
– John Gilmore, Time Magazine
Whether this was its intended purpose or not, this is what the internet represents. The internet is the unmodified unmasked voice of the people – it will not be silenced and it does not tolerate censorship. Within this massive network there are sub-networks explicitly designed to avoid tampering, snooping or censorship of any kind. They may currently be used to share illicit goods but the point is that there is a whole sub-internet just waiting for the pirates to set up shop in the case that something more effective than SOPA ever rears its ugly head.
Those who would give up Essential Liberty, to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
– Benjamin Franklin
Now I have pretty libertarian leanings, so I agree heartily with old Ben up there, but even if you don’t – even if you think that giving up your liberties to purchase the safety you feel your intellectual property deserves, SOPA is a bad idea. Even if you’re willing to pay the price, SOPA will not bring the dividends you’re after.
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