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

If you love your Internet, you must read this article. Congress is once again mucking around with our rights, and it ain't good.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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?

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