Overheard on a bus in D.C. the day of the SOPA/PIPA protest, paraphrased:
Girl #1:  What’s the big fuss about SOPA?
Girl #2:  I don’t even know what SOPA stands for.  Look it up on your phone.
Girl #1, after a moment:  That’s odd, Wikipedia is down.

SOPA and PIPA (the “Stop Online Piracy Act” and “PROTECT IP Act”) are shelved for now, but watch out for similar measures that will be proposed in their stead.  They have little direct connection with change ringing, but would give power to shut down web sites (like this one) on mistaken evidence without due process.

It’s a sad fact that members of Congress (and their staffers who do most of the legwork), are not omniscient.  Few of them seem to have much grasp of science and technology, being mostly business and law people.  Shockingly few seem to be sharp in law and current affairs, in which you’d think they should be sharpest.

  • Legal scholars and lawyers have noted that SOPA and PIPA almost certainly would not withstand legal challenges on First Amendment grounds, most straightforwardly because they are not narrowly tailored to achieve the stated goal of preventing infringement:  an entire website could be blocked without a hearing for a single claimed instance.  SOPA and PIPA could also be challenged on other First and Fifth Amendment grounds, for example as a “taking” by the government.
  • Technologists note SOPA and PIPA’s DNS-based measures would prevent ordinary Web users from accessing sites, but do little to block the habitual infringers that are its purported targets.  To see how easily a SOPA/PIPA takedown of Google could be sidestepped, type into your browser’s address bar.
  • A number of national security and open-source projects to aid citizens of countries that restrict Internet access would be rendered illegal;  for example, the Tor project of the US Naval Research Laboratory and Electronic Frontier Foundation with which people under oppressive regimes can use the Internet anonymously.
  • Anyone who follows the news will have noted that SOPA and PIPA would force the U.S. Justice Department to do things for which the free world’s been rightfully criticizing pre-revolution Libya, pre-Arab-Spring Egypt, Syria, North Korea, China, ….

The MPAA and RIAA have pushed for decades and with considerable success for laws that will increase their profits, baldly put, and no doubt will continue to do so;  and they have used those laws without much attention to accuracy or justice.  I recall receiving a peremptory notice some years back from a law firm representing the RIAA, demanding I pay some thousands of dollars or face a lawsuit for a supposed infringement involving my research server.  The claimed evidence was an access at an early morning hour through an IP address, but a little digging on my part showed that this was simply one in the pool of addresses this computer (among many others) could have used.  The computer was powered down and disconnected at the time, but would a court believe me and how much would I have to pay a lawyer to get to that point?  I was able to hand the complaint over to the university and heard no more about it, but under early drafts of SOPA and PIPA the MPAA and RIAA could have shut my research website down without a hearing.

Current copyright and patent law in the U.S. is strongly favorable to corporations already (viz. copyright terms of roughly a century or so, and patents on living things, processes, and software) and many have noted that it exceeds its constitutional authorization (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8) that gives Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”  If you’re interested in learning more, an excellent start is leading copyright expert William Patry’s Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars (2009).  Or you can find information using Google or look it up on Wikipedia—as long as we continue to block SOPA, PIPA, and future bills of the same sort.