New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

Summary: If you love your Internet, you must read this article. Congress is once again mucking around with our rights, and it ain't good.

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Let me be clear. If you love your Internet, you must read this article. Congress is once again mucking around with our rights, and it ain't good.

To put it simply, the U.S. House of Representatives is trying to pass SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act. Now, we all know and accept that online piracy is bad. We all know and accept that it's wrong to download music we haven't paid for, and we all know it's better to pay Netflix or iTunes for our movies than to steal them off Torrent sites.

Stealing is wrong and we accept that on faith. We all believe our artists and creative professionals (and the suits who follow them around with their hands out) deserve to get paid for their work. Heck, I make my living producing content. I like to be able to pay my bills as much as the next guy.

Unfortunately, our elected officials are once again allowing themselves to be led around by their collective noses by the lobbying organizations known as the RIAA and the MPAA. These lobbyists have no problem disrupting the Internet for their own gain, whether or not their efforts will damage our economy, cause jobs to be lost, or destroy one of America's greatest assets.

It's interesting when you think about it. The Internet was designed to route around nuclear warfare, but it's almost defenseless against lawyers and lobbyists.

Here's where SOPA goes wrong.

SOPA wants to give, well, pretty much anyone with a law degree the right to shut down Web sites and domains. SOPA has some nasty teeth. First, according to the EFF, it allows individual companies to force payment processors (think PayPal or VISA) to stop paying any site that might be considered to be engaging in, enabling, or facilitating any form of copyright infringement.

Let's first look at how this might impact you. What cloud-based services do you use? Gmail? Dropbox? Amazon's music sharing service? What about eBay? What about Facebook? Or perhaps you simply host your corporate email at an Exchange hosting provider, like I do.

Let's use that last one, as an example. My hosting provider, like most, offers a free SharePoint account along with their email hosting. Let's say one of their other customers uploads something they shouldn't. This new legislation would allow any other private company (including my hosting provider's competitors) to demand that payment agencies cut off payments, effectively strangling cash flow and shutting the company down.

Let's ignore the damage to my nice, kind, hard-working, highly responsive email hosting provider. Let's just think about me for a moment. All of a sudden, my email service could be turned off, and anything I have stored there (yes, I have backups, but work with me here) would be gone.

My Internet Press Guild colleague Sharon Fisher cites another example. She asks, what if you're storing legitimate files on Dropbox, but someone else is sharing MP3s? A record label could go to a judge and ask him to block all money flow to Dropbox. Not only does Dropbox starve, you lose your stored files as well.

You can see how this works. There are chilling effects.

Let's continue to use Dropbox as an example. Let's say the law has been passed and the managers at Dropbox know they need to protect themselves. Do they now filter, explore, catalog, and otherwise violate your privacy actively to make sure you're only sharing acceptable content? Dropbox has admitted they can turn over your data to the government on request, but up until now, that request had to have some serious legs.

See also: If you have something to hide from the government, don't use Dropbox

What about the email messages you send through Google or the files you store on Google Apps? We know Google sifts through email messages to feed you ads, but are they now going to have to build invasive algorithms that will pass judgement on every document you upload?

I don't actively use Google Docs, but let's say I did. What if I wrote this article using Google Docs or emailed it to my editor using Gmail? In a post-SOPA world, would I have to be worried? Would my mention of file sharing sites trigger an algorithm that would shut me out of my Gmail or delete all my writing?

It sounds ludicrous, but these are the chilling effects that we could experience because of this bill.

And then there are the whistleblower sites. This is a much tougher topic, because on the one hand, I think whistleblowing is a sacred American tradition. Many wrongs have been put right by shining the light of truth on wrongdoing.

But -- on the other hand -- there's WikiLeaks. Before WikiLeaks turned into a strange circus sideshow for one-man freakshow Julian Assange and before WikiLeaks trafficked in stolen government documents, its mission was important and good.

WikiLeaks has been all but shut down using a financial blockade similar to the type that would be possible with this new legislation.

Don't let yourself get sidetracked by the WikiLeaks analogy.

The difference is that WikiLeaks is a foreign organization trafficking in secret U.S. government documents stolen by a traitor who took an oath to protect and defend the United States.

What the RIAA and the MPAA (and the Congress-critters in their pockets) want to do is be able to shut down any American site that they don't like.

This could lead to a degree of censorship we never have before accepted. We in the press could find ourselves restricted from writing negative articles about the RIAA, MPAA, or even any government official for fear that our parent organization would be shut down through a simple complaint and judgement.

Make no mistake about it, the SOPA legislation is running right up against our First Amendment rights. If you haven't read your Bill of Rights recently, here's what it says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Let's deconstruct this oh-so-important Amendment and apply it to SOPA:

  • Congress shall make no law: Congress is trying to make a law
  • ...abridging the freedom of speech: shutting down Web sites is certainly abridging free speech, especially if Web sites are shut down capriciously or without suitable defense
  • ...or of the press: if we feel we can't write on certain topics, our freedom is curtailed
  • ...or the right of the people peaceably to assemble: we now use social networking as a primary means of assembly and there are some very chilling effects in this bill pertaining to social networks
  • ...to petition the Government for a redress of grievances: even here, there would be new restrictions, because we could be shut down based on any trumped up claim about "facilitating" infringement.

It's not appropriate for me to tell you what to do about this bill, but I can tell you that, personally, it creeps me out and seems the essence of anti-American and anti-freedom. If you want to learn more about this bill, I'd recommend paying a visit to the EFF.

What do you think? Should we let Congress pass SOPA?

Topics: Browser, Apps, Collaboration, Google

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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118 comments
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  • Master Joe Says...The Best Part

    Not only does this law do all of the things you claim, but there is one additional thought. Many of the sites hosting illegal materials, such as music, movies, software, etc., are hosted outside of the US. China is the piracy capital of the world (ask Microsoft because they are well aware). So, not only does this law hurt those of us who might not have even done anything wrong, but it doesn't stop these foreign sites from continuing their operations without interruption. If anything, this is simply politics. Those who support this bill are simply looking to please the lobbiests and win votes. Politics, as usual.

    --Master Joe
    SteelCityPC
    • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

      @MasterJoe It is a wiki leaks law.
      slickjim
      • Master Joe Says...Untrue

        @Peter Perry WikiLeaks is simply the scapegoat for this law. They use that site as an excuse to pass laws like this. In reality, it is just a power grab by the US government, just like the health care bill and the bailout bills for the mortgage, auto, and financial institutions passed over the past few years.

        --Master Joe
        SteelCityPC
      • Wikileaks Law?

        @Peter Perry
        Try looking at the sponsors of this "bill" and their associated lobbyists.

        Wikileaks is the bumper sticker, not the originator.

        Think music
        Think video
        Think lawsuits against individuals that did not work well.......
        rhonin
    • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

      @MasterJoe - l Like many, have little faith in our politician to do the right thing for "we the people" without being paid (somehow) for their criminal acts. But our system is designed to allow representatives and congressional bodies to debate and refine a bill so that it becomes acceptable by all. The primary issue with this type of system is what was pointed out in the fourth paragraph of this blog. Our politicians are owned and controlled by special interest and big business who are willing to pay big $$ to buy a law in their favor. Yes stop the bill until we the people can remove special interest from our law makers temptations.
      toomuchtime
      • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

        @toomuchtime Agreed!!!
        blueskip
      • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

        @toomuchtime
        Absolutely correct. In all aspects of our lives now, Congress has become a farce. These people will never abolish their reason for being there: getting paid a fortune, aka lobbying. Nothing at all to do with serving or protecting the people. Now tell me, how does a country get rid of that?
        jpo@...
    • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

      @MasterJoe You did not even read the bill obviously. An infringing site could be prevented from accessing revenue and search engines would be required to exclude them. It does not matter where they are. Reading the bill before commenting on the misinformed article should be required or at least should have appeared to have been done.
      Curtis-Neeley
      • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

        @Curtis-Neeley Obviously you are in the pocket of some lobbiest or worse, work for one of the offending congress-creeps.
        However, I don't have to read the bill to know that a law passed by our congress can only be enforced on websites in the US or payment poviders in the US.
        And forcing search engines to exclude sites that supposedly infringe, without benefit of a proper court hearing, is clearly a violation of the constitution even though it is already being violated by the RIAA and MPAA and others, even today.
        sackbut
      • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

        sackbut

        What you say is not true. The US regularly gets info back from other countries about internet users who are breaking US laws. There are international treaties that require co-operation and mutual enforcement.
        mswift@...
    • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

      @MasterJoe Another example of over regulation shipping more jobs over seas because its easier/cheaper to do business there..
      MallusLittera
    • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

      @MasterJoe Good point. I think Congress is ill-equipped and ill-positioned to make laws governing the WORLD WIDE Web. They do seem to favor punitive over productive and think their local laws can have global reach. Or maybe I give them too much credit for thinking about more than the financial benefits of serving their lobbyists.
      josmyth
  • Gewirtz for President!

    OK, maybe only 'presidential advisor' or 'chief advisor' to whatever body you have over there in the crazy USA Government system trying to implement enlightened policy ...<br><br>... others may of course vote for Foremski, who laments that anyone can make their opinion heard for free and wishes to preserve the 'status quo' (in case you haven't been following the news we are going bankrupt whilst global corporations are growing rich).<br><br>Vote Gewirtz!
    jacksonjohn
  • All the good file sharing sites moved offshore a long time ago

    this is purely a power grab
    zmud
    • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

      @zmud Most likely people would switch to VPN servers offshore as well, so US government would lose control over encrypted traffic, and further press on piracy would only accelerate adoption of super encrypted protocols. So all Internet traffic exchange would go offshore.
      Internet is supposed to eliminate large media conglomerates, it is unavoidable, and they understand that very well. In 10-20 years we must watch all content on-line and more than that we would watch our beloved series directly from TV studio bypassing all media consolidators. It would bring their MONOPOLY for promotion to the end. If you remember Napster increased total sales for music titles by 2.5 times, but at the same time as a side effect it gave some promotion for unknown musicians. So that was the primary reason to kill it. Internet destroys that monopoly for promotion. Yes in the world where Google monopolized and centralized internet search and ads, everything is fine money is still making money. In order to be promoted we go to the guy who has sack of money and it is hard to bypass him.
      Google search results quality are degrading day by day, it is impossible to adopt to dynamic content, so we come back to decentralized internet again. So, yes, the only way to keep that monopoly on promotion is physically eliminate potential competitors.
      Nikolayev
      • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

        @Nikolayev

        What? What are you talking about? The Internet isn't "supposed" to do anything. It won't eliminate anything; producing content costs real money. It's funny how some Internet-only companies have grown to be considerably larger than their physical store counterparts. Was the Internet "supposed" to have created those companies? Would you, as an individual producer, really want to have to spend all of your time trying to find ways to promote yourself on the Internet? YouTube is nothing but a large conglomerate; Facebook is a large conglomerate; where would you go to promote yourself?
        aep528
      • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

        @aep528

        Niko is absolutely right. The fundamental premise of the internet, before NAT came along, was point to point connectivity. To drive home his point, look how much better Facebook is doing than ZDNet. Yeah, we consume some content over here, but the conversations are happening on facebook, Google+, Linkedin, etc.

        Pull your head out of your crappy business text book. Content production has COST. VALUE is determined by the consumer. The simple fact of the matter is that I'd rather see content posted by friends and family on Youtube than most of the crap Hollywood puts out. Hollywood has fallen into the same trap it's fallen into every time the suits take over. It VALUATES IPs based upon COST. Stupid.
        tkejlboom
  • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

    If the USA keeps producing ridiculous laws like this, I expect mayor hosts to move to Europe and Asia, which would leave a big hole in American economy. And it's only when some big chief starts to loose money that they will take a step back and think about the damage they've done.
    belli_bettens@...
  • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

    I am so tired of innocent, working people having to pay the price for what these lying, conniving criminals are doing. Can't they make a law that only punishes those that break the law? Why does everybody have to suffer for the acts of a few hundred thieves. Many of us don't even think about piracy or even know how to get to it so why should we have to be included in this sweep. I'm all for piracy laws because all of this petty theft has a trickle-down effect and one way or another, it will eventually affect all of us. What congress should do is put together a task force that will search out these harmful sites that steal from those groups and shut them down individually and punish them individually. That way the rest of us can continue using the internet and enjoying it the way it was intended. I think passing a law blanketing the whole internet is irresponsible, lazy and non-productive.
    Gadget Girl
    • RE: New House of Representatives bill may strangle the Internet or nerf the First Amendment

      @Gadget Girl This sort of BS has absolutely nothing to do with piracy of any kind. The corporates and the politicians are far more interested in gaining controls of your information stream and weeding out anything they perceive as "bad".
      DarkPhoenixFF4