BitDepth 816 - January 10

The response to the SOPA and PIPA bills cause a furore on the web. Here's why.
A hard blue SOPA
Jacqueline Morris, educator and 2011 Associate Chair of the ICANN NomCom.
Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was already causing unruly rumblings on the web before popular hosting company and registrar GoDaddy publicly announced support for the act.
That was the point at which things moved from action to revolution in one fell swoop.

Companies owning large numbers of domains, the unique addresses that define where things are on the Internet immediately threatened to boycott GoDaddy (disclosure: I'm a GoDaddy customer).
Among them was Ben Huh, the master of Internet time wasters like Fail Blog who threatened to pull the 1,000 domains he owns from GoDaddy.

GoDaddy got the message fast and backpedaled vigorously. First, it withdrew support from SOPA, then amplified that with a further notice that it opposed the act.

So what's behind all the furore? At its root is a well-intentioned but horribly implemented strategy to make it easier to crack down on websites guilty of hosting pirated digital content.

Like too many anti-piracy measures, the SOPA net pulls in many dolphins with the tuna, making it easy to demand nuisance takedowns of websites while shifting the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused.

In doing so, the act takes significant liberties with basic principles in US law such as free speech, due process and the safe harbour rules of secondary liability that give ISPs and hosting companies both a legal buffer and time to remove infringing content from their servers.

Among the wording of SOPA is rather broad language that allows action to be taken if websites are capable of being "dedicated to the theft of US property."
Under that language, every modern website is liable so it's unsurprising that Universal Music managed to include the personal website of one of its own artists, 50Cent on its pirate lists.

Among the potential targets are Vimeo, Soundcloud and the Internet Archive.
Such measures, if implemented, are likely to increase the risks associated with Internet startups and make venture capital sourcing more difficult to come by. For the US, the most immediate response to SOPA is likely to be a mass migration of hosting business from American servers.

Beyond these annoyances is a deeper technical problem that cuts to the root of the way the web works.
According to Jacqueline Morris, who has been active in Internet governance issues over the last five years, the acts will break the architecture of the Internet.

"The Internet works by a system that translates domain names, such as to numeric addresses, such as that refer to a particular server. So when a user types in the website name, he expects the name will send him to the correct website."
"The DNSSEC security protocol makes sure that this occurs. The SOPA and PIPA [the Senate version of SOPA] bills plan to have websites that are supporting piracy sent to a fake address, so that if you type in, say,, instead of going to that website, you will find yourself on another site."

"This breaks the fundamental structure of the Internet, and it will affect all Internet users, not just the ones in the USA. Additionally, it breaks the security of the addressing system. It would enshrine and institutionalize the very network manipulation that DNSSEC was created to stop."

Morris, who currently sits on the ICANN NomCom as a member for At Large, Latin America and the Caribbean, would like to see more active participation by Trinidad and Tobago in Internet governance issues such as the launch of new top level domains (gTLDs) expected on January 12.

"We should definitely be paying a lot more attention to these issues," the UTT lecturer said. "The Internet is more than Facebook, Twitter and comments on the local newspaper websites."

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