— On Wednesday, several heavily trafficked websites “blacked out” for at least 12 hours, as they manned the breach to protect the most-prized asset of the Internet - the free and open exchange of ideas and content.
Google, Wikipedia, WordPress, Reddit, Mozilla and thousands of other domains big and small joined in an open protest of the U.S. House's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the U.S. Senate's Protect IP Act (PIPA), which will allow copyright protection agencies to make websites and internet service providers that host copyrighted content a target for censoring and/or removal.
Google's iconic logo had a flat, black bar slapped across it and a link urging visitors to "Tell Congress: 'Please don't censor the web,'" Wikipedia's darkened placeholder page read, "Imagine a world without free knowledge."
So why all the controversy? Copyright watchdog groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) argue that content publishers have a right to defend the salability of their copyrights. However, critics of the legislation claim it will undermine the foundation of the Internet itself.
Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, cited as the biggest entry point for prospective students, is a confirmed SOPA opposer and has turned off its “iSchool” academic homepage as well as its related blog, “Information Space.”
Grad student and Information Space contributor Isaac Budmen said he fears SOPA could derail the promise and potential of a global society connected by the Internet.
“I think we're moving towards an age of open-source innovation and it's making better products and bringing together better technology and better ideas. Really, SOPA would be a killer,” Budmen said.
In short, the two laws in question - considered to be nearly identical by legal analysts - would allow corporations to file complaints against copyright-infringing websites that could result in lawsuits, blocking of funds or an unceremonial shutdown.
Did you record your 3-year old singing a Katy Perry song and post it to YouTube? SOPA says you’re edging in on Capitol Records’ profits, regardless of the tot’s charisma. Violations like these could land websites like YouTube - which will be made responsible for users’ actions - in hot water.
Just one "bad" link that points to copyrighted content is grounds for legal intervention, forcing websites and Internet service providers like Atlantic Broadband and Comcast - a verified SOPA supporter - to pull double-duty: providing the Internet to millions then monitoring how those customers use it.
Content sites such as Reddit.com, which joined with Wikipedia and thousands of other websites in "blacking out" for the day, dread a mass-hampering of user creativity under these new regulations. What constitutes a "bad" link can have a different interpretation depending on the judge or jury that hears a particular infringement case.
“(Fighting SOPA) is important for a number of reasons,” said Budmen.
“Particularly for our generation and the millenials as a whole - we've been brought up with this idea of free, open-source sharing. I'm not condoning the use of a (peer-to-peer file-sharing service like) Napster or Limewire. I do believe the most original content comes from file-sharing. I think if SOPA is passed, we lose that potential to push technology and future information sharing and learning to the next level.”
In the past few months, the White House has taken a couple different stances on the issue - most recently, a response from WhiteHouse.gov regarding the online “We the People” petition that calls SOPA into question reads, “Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small.
"Across the globe, the openness of the Internet is increasingly central to innovation in business, government, and society and it must be protected.”
Not surprisingly, the biggest supporters and detractors of SOPA/PIPA can be found along the West Coast, with folks in Silicon Valley pushing for a "free Internet" against the nearly limitless coffers and lobbying dollars of Hollywood.
The list of staunch SOPA supporters includes: the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), News Corp, TimeWarner, Comcast, ABC, Sony and Walmart.
The office of U.S. Rep Mark Critz, D-Johnstown, says the Congressman is withholding official support or rejection of SOPA until a final version of the bill can be drafted. SOPA was recently shelved in favor of more congressional discussion in February. U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster could not be reached for comment as his offices were closed for the day.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, however, acknowledged in a press release today that the latest iterations of SOPA/PIPA are "flawed" and he "cannot endorse them in their current form."
For cyber-security firms, the Domain Name Server (DNS) record-altering provisions of SOPA could create more problems than they fix.
These provisions mean a website found in violation of SOPA/PIPA could have its domain name revoked entirely.
For instance, if you typed “Reddit.com” into your URL bar after its DNS record was wiped, you’d get a blank page. Reddit would still exist, but because of infringement complaints, it would become reachable only by entering its exact IP address.
However, as far as Google is concerned, Reddit would not exist and the search giant would be legally obligated to remove Reddit from search results - a proverbial death ray for start-up sites that rely on the exposure that Google’s search algorithms provide.
Brett Summers is the Vice President of Managed Services for Pitt Bull Security, a CyberSec firm based out of Johnstown. He said he worries about new dangers to Internet stability and safety as a result of the lines in SOPA that open up the alteration of DNS records by third parties.
"Changing those records would be just like taking your home address. By taking that over, you could redirect people to whatever website you want," said Summers. He said it would almost constitute identity theft.
Years ago, Summers explained, WhiteHouse.net was the official homepage of the President. WhiteHouse.com, however, was a pornography site.
When someone altered the DNS record of WhiteHouse.net, they redirected the .net visitors to the porn hosted on the .com site. The changes remained until the 24 hours it took for DNS propagation to finish and the record could be fixed.
Summers said, "I think it has to be redrafted - there's no other choice."
In the right sidebar, you can find a collection of quotes from different perspectives on the SOPA/PIPA debate, but let's hear yours!
Get in on the commenting below the sidebar and let us know how you feel about the future of the Internet.