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US law could kill Canadian web sites

Are you kidding me? If it isn't bad enough that the US Congress is effectively threatening to kill large parts of the Internet, they can't even do it without bickering among themselves, like schoolchildren. SOPA, a piece of toxic legislation currently working its way through the US House of Representatives, made it through yesterday's vote largely intact - after the debate was derailed by infantile name calling.

The Stop Online Piracy Act is currently being debated by politicians in the US. Piloted by industry lobbyists such as the Motion Picture Association of America, it has drawn criticism from almost every part of the technology sector over its wide-reaching scope, which threatens the existence of huge numbers of web sites, both in the US and further afield.

The idea behind the bill is to enable content owners to stop unauthorised web sites hosting copyrighted content. If they decide that a web site is hosting copyrighted content including music, text, or video, they can ask a variety of organisations to act. They can tell payment networks such as Paypal not to process payments to the site from US citizens. They can tell search engines not to display links to the web site in their search results. They can tell ad networks not to run advertisements either about the site, or on the site, further choking off revenue.

The bill would also enable content owners to force ISPs not to provide access to the sites. ISPs would be told not to resolve DNS queries to sites that had been blacklisted by content owners. The Domain Name System (DNS) is the Internet function which looks up a web address (such as www.msn.ca) and turns it into an IP address, which tells your browser which computer is hosting the web site online, and where to go so that your web browser can download the web pages. Think of it as an address book for the Internet. 

Industry experts are apoplectic about the proposed legislation. The problem with it is that the terms are too broad, they argue. The worry is that a US copyright holder could effectively kill a site off, simply by complaining about it. By the time the site was able to argue its case and get back on line, the damage would have been done.

The bill was amended recently, officially removing the need for service providers to automatically comply with a blacklist request from a content owner. Opponents argue that the bill is still dangerous, because it still contains a clause providing immunity to service providers who voluntarily comply with a request to blacklist a site. This means that many search engines, ad networks, ISPs and payment providers will still choose to block a site first, and ask questions later.

These days, large percentages of sites rely on user-generated content that is uploaded by visitors. Video sites such as YouTube, and pretty much any social networking site works this way. Even eBay is a user-generated content site. Opponents to SOPA believe that all of these sites would be threatened - even if they were based overseas. That means that existing Canadian web sites could be blocked for US users without a Canadian court even being contacted.

It also threatens startups, according to the people that invest in them. A Booz & Co study found that seven in every ten angel investors and venture capitalists would stop investing in digital content intermediaries (that is, sites that distribute content from others, and make it searchable). That could threaten the lion's share of the tech startup sector. 

It also threatens free speech, according to experts. Vint Cerf, effectively the father of the modern Internet, has called the bill a potential source of massive Internet censorship. It could effectively allow parties with a particular political or economic interest to silence huge parts of the Internet.

The legislation allows content providers to block off parts of the Internet to US citizens. China already does this, using a filtering system colloquially called the Golden Shield. In short, America wants to emulate what China practices in the name of political ideology. Ironically, it wants to do it in the name of intellectual property, which is a hoot, given that Chinese piracy using physical media is rife and well known.

During the amendments debate yesterday, Iowa Republican Steve King posted a Twitter message about another Representative, Texan Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee. "We are debating the Stop Online Piracy Act and Shiela Jackson [sic] has so bored me that I'm killing time by surfing the Internet", it read. 

Jackson got wind of the tweet, and reacted, calling King's tweet "offensive". This roused committee chair Lamar Smith, who began mulling Congressional rules that call for the suspension of a debate if the language got too personal. King would have been invited to apologise, except that he had subsequently left the debate. Eventually, Jackson Lee withdrew the word "offensive" from the record, and settled for "impolitic and unkind" instead. The debate resumed.

These are the people who are deciding the Internet's future. Politicians - some of whom during the debate admitted that they don't understand the technologies involved - are making sweeping judgements that will affect not only a vibrant and important part of the economy, but also the concept of free speech itself.

Why did this bill make it so far? And why are a significant number of Senators blatantly ignoring rational amendments designed to do little more than clarify the scope of the bill? 

We all understand the need to address online piracy, but the Senate's approach to this problem is like nuking a city to take out a lone burglar. Moreover, it will be ineffective. The Pirate Bay, one of the most popular Torrent sites on the Internet, has repeatedly eluded attempts to shut it down, by simply using a complex combination of mirrored servers and distributed lists. Sites genuinely interested in posting others' intellectual property online will easily be able to circumvent the majority of measures in the SOPA legislation, using something as simple as browser plugins.

Republican representative Darrell Issa has proposed an alternative bill called the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN), which while still draconian, is a lot better than the alternative

Yesterday saw Congress debating amendments to the bill that would have clarified its scope. The majority of the amendments were rejected. The lobbyists won that round. The debate continues. Let's all keep watching.

Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets




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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.