A pair of bills currently making their way through US legislature has set off alarm bells among internet technologists and users worldwide. The aim of PROTECT-IP, in the Senate, and SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), in the US House of Representatives, is to prevent the infringment of copyrights on US intellectual property such as movies, music and books by websites located outside US jurisdiction.
It was argued recently on The Conversation that SOPA would pave the way for greater regulation of the internet, and that this was inevitable.
But the broad aims and language of these bills have caused concerns that their passage will cause severe damage to the technical foundation of the internet and destroy it as a medium for the free flow of information. To understand why this may happen, it’s essential to know how websites are located on the internet.
All websites are described by a series of numbers called an IP address. Unlike Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rainman, most humans are more comfortable with names than numbers. Each website is described by a human-readable name, such as http://www.google.com, called its URL (Uniform Resource Locator).
When a user asks a web browser, such as Internet Explorer or Firefox, to fetch a particular website, the first step involves finding out the IP address for the URL of the website. The browser does this by asking a DNS (Domain Name Service) server, similar to how someone would call up the directory service to enquire the phone number of another person or an organisation. By default, this DNS server is provided by the user’s ISP (Internet Service Provider).
SOPA – if passed – would give U.S. government lawyers the power to obtain a court injunction to block internet users in America from accessing a website shown to be dealing in intellectual property theft.
The ISPs will have to remove the domain name from DNS server and redirect it to a web page that explains why the website is being blocked. This will be akin to replacing the phone number in the directory service with a recorded message explaining why the business can’t be reached.
In response to such measures, it’s obvious users seeking pirated content will look for alternate DNS servers of dubious provenance. But the same DNS server that resolves the IP address of the infringing website would also be responsible for locating the IP address of the user’s bank, thus compromising security of internet banking sessions.
Indeed, the provisions of SOPA interfere with the DNSSEC (DNS Security Extensions) mechanisms that aim to make the DNS system more secure for users. DNSSEC is being slowly rolled out across the internet and is championed by a number of organisations, including the US government.
Also, the main DNS servers for website URLs ending in .com, .net and .edu, among others, are located in the U.S. Any change made in these servers will quickly flow on to the rest of the globe as well. This could lead to a break in the loose trust model that underpins much of the internet and has caused fears that SOPA could lead to the internet being balkanised into regional networks.
The court injunction would also force other intermediaries to stop dealing with the website. This means search engines would have to stop the website from appearing in their results, ad companies would have to stop paying the website for displaying their ads, and payment processors such as Mastercard, Visa and Paypal would have to stop dealing with the website. The last technique was used to devastating effect to choke the life out of WikiLeaks.
SOPA also allows intellectual property holders to launch legal actions against ad networks and search engines to force them to cut off access to a particular website that they deemed to be infringing. This means that any site dealing with user-generated content, such as YouTube, may be proactively blocked by intermediaries so as to head off potential liabilities.
These mechanisms will affect the internet substantially as the intermediaries involved are U.S. companies and provide some of the crucial functions for the operation of internet-based businesses. But overseas websites caught in such an action will have little to no recourse to fight these charges since the legal proceedings will be carried out in US courts.
The potential for SOPA to destabilise the key infrastructure of the internet has worried many people from governments and organisations across the globe. The European Parliament recently adopted a strong resolution criticising SOPA.
A group of around 60 human rights organisations have also expressed their concern with the provisions of the bill, noting that: “SOPA sends an unequivocal message to other nations that it is acceptable to censor speech on the global internet”.
It is undeniable that infringment of intellectual property is a major concern and that there’s a need for stronger mechanisms to protect the rights of the copyright holders. But the scorched-earth tactics espoused in SOPA can have far-reaching consequences that could affect the functioning of the internet as a medium of free speech and commerce.
Paradoxically, that could lead to the end of the very medium that copyright holders have employed to advertise their wares around the globe.