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SOPA & Watto

January 19, 2012

My uncle always likes to say that law is the last profession where you have to know about everything.  And he backs those words up, you know.  He knows more about medicine than anyone I know who isn’t a doctor or med student.  He knows more about technology than anyone I know at his age.  He has a command of pop culture, boating, electrical circuits, radio transmissions, politics, nuclear power, all sorts of cool stuff.  I learn something every time I talk to him.

He explained to me one day that the reason he knows so much is 1) the myriad experiences he’s had, and 2) the fact that he takes seriously the need to educate the relevant people in a court case.  And to do that one must first educate himself.

And it makes sense, you know, that someone involved in creating or upholding or interpreting a law has an obligation to understand all the implications of that law.  With that in mind I’ve been watching with great interest the whole drama about SOPA.

I believe, to be an effective lawmaker, one needs life experience and a sense of duty, and the intelligence for all that to matter.  If there can only be two people per state in the senate, we should probably find the two best people for the job, so I think it’s fair to say those qualifications are understandable.

But if you look at our congress, those people don’t have life experience, not in any meaningful sense.  They don’t have a diversity of backgrounds.  They are millionaire children of millionaires.  They don’t take their jobs seriously, they don’t understand basic math and science and medicine and economics.  They seamlessly go being legislators to lobbyists, they brazenly take bribes in public.

And you know, when dealing with technology, when confronted with a changing world, I think all these shortcomings are really magnified.  When dealing with a bill that deals with recklessly regulating the internet, time and again these people derisively describe anyone that understands the complexities of networks and information routing as a “nerd.”  “I don’t understand any of this stuff, I’m not a nerd!” they protest.  Gosh man, maybe you should be one, it might make you a little more respectable.  I could do your job, could you do mine?

So, the deal with SOPA is, it will give copyright holders, as a law enforcement measure, the ability to force internet service providers to blacklist websites by breaking an end user’s ability to find the IP address that’s paired with that site’s domain name.  They can request that these sites be blacklisted with absolutely no oversight or consequences.  Meaning if a copyright holder (whose content you did not steal or use) suspects that you are violating his copyright, he can report you anyways.  And your site will be taken down.  And even if the copyright holder was completely wrong he won’t be punished for killing your site traffic.

Now, if you’re like me, you had a couple of burning questions after reading that.

First: what ignorant a-hole thought it was smart to turn copyright owners into their own police force?  Cause that’s basically what it would do.  Which would kill the whole idea of a wiki, or a blogging site, or anything with any amount of user generated content.  It would also kill fair use as far as the internet is concerned.

And such a provision really makes a mockery of due process.  For example, what happens to our current understanding of fair use?  From the Copyright Act of 1976:

“the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.”

Say you’re a studio executive and someone writes a bad review of your latest movie, White Chicks 3.  A movie review is definitely covered under fair use but a studio could still report you to an ISP who would have to take your site down, no questions asked.  Only then will you have a chance to prove your innocence.  This is completely counter to our whole justice system.  Under SOPA everyone is presumed guilty.  And the real punishment, the blacklisting of your site, occurs whether you are guilty or not, before your guilt or innocence has even been determined.

Second, isn’t it really clumsy and stupid and dangerous to block a site by tinkering with the DNS?  Absolutely.  There are lots of copies of the DNS tables.  If we can’t resolve an address with the help of our own ISP we’ll just query some domain name server in Canada or something. Or better yet, we’ll use the magic of bittorrent to keep a copy of the DNS on our local computer and constantly share it with each other.  Of course it would have to come from a trusted source that wasn’t under US jurisdiction, but that’s not as big a problem as everyone thinks it is.  There’s already a plugin for Firefox that takes your web addresses and checks them against multiple offshore DNS tables to see if they match up and then sends you off to your website.

Of course, the worst-case scenario of this solution is that a user switches to a different DNS resolver that doesn’t have neutral intentions, or has outright hostile intentions.  I mean we live in a country full of people who panic when they get a popup that tells them they have a virus, so they click it and it gives them a bunch of viruses.  If these same users get a popup that says, click here and get a new DNS resolver so you can get to blocked sites!  And the user does it without a second thought.  Only the DNS they now use works fine except it doesn’t just sent you to one site and put one piece of malware on your computer, or direct you to dummy sites to try to steal your information.  It will do all of these things.  And your browser can’t help you, you can’t trust your search engine because you don’t know if you actually went to it or to a mirror site.  The more you think about the potential for abuse, the more frightening it becomes.

A big part of the security of the internet is that its conventions work so well for end users.  What I mean is, we have never had a reason not to trust our ISP.  The second we feel we can’t, that’s when we go to some shady Russian mafia site that steals our bank account info.

Of course, legislators might know some of this if a few more of them had the work ethic to become nerds.

 

Speaking of out-of-touch old people, George Lucas is retiring!  As a young Darth Vader once said, Yippeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

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