Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Blackouts in Response to SOPA

The Internet is buzzing lately with news about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill introduced by Texas Representative Lamar Smith. The stated goal of SOPA is to make it easier for copyright holders and the US Justice Department to deal with copyright infringement. If passed, the U.S. Attorney General could impose sanctions on online entities like search engines, ad networks, and Internet service providers, barring them from linking to sites hosting infringing content.

Today, January 18th 2012 at 12AM EST, Wikipedia, reddit, Mozilla, and dozens of other companies blacked out their websites to protest SOPA and PIPA. Still others such as Google are mounting less drastic protests by changing their web sites. Detractors of the bill claim it is tantamount to Internet censorship and that it blatantly violates the First Amendment rights of everyone on the Internet. According to some interpretations of a recent version of the bill, the U.S. Department of Justice could shut down a site like Youtube or Vimeo, who hosts user content, because just a single user has uploaded infringing content.

If enacted, SOPA would affect many different technical aspects of the Internet. Some opponents of the bill claim that ISPs would need to perform deep packet inspection to comply with orders to block users accessing infringing content. The bill could also disrupt the Domain Name System, the Internet mechanism central to turning human-readable website names like google.com into IP addresses, which are more useful for routing traffic. Suppose the DOJ requires an ISP to block access to a site after finding out that it hosts infringing content. The ISP would then need to perform DNS filtering before passing the DNS request along, basically circumventing the process.

Later in January the House of Representatives will vote on SOPA, and the Senate will vote on a similar bill, the PROTECT IP Act. We’re a long way from seeing anything like this become law, but the implications are certainly far-reaching and worth keeping an eye on. You can read more about SOPA here, but don't look now; the site will be back up tomorrow.

-Robert Karl


  1. Not that I'm encouraging illegal trafficking, but the idea that large-scale piracy can be stopped by disallowing access to a couple of major websites is to ignore the properties of networks. According to Wikipedia, "At any given instant of time [the peer-to-peer file sharing protocol] BitTorrent has, on average, more active users than YouTube and Facebook combined. (This refers to the number of active users at any instant and not to the total number of unique users.)[dubious – discuss]" It also says "BitTorrent does not offer its users anonymity. It is possible to obtain the IP addresses of all current and possibly previous participants in a swarm from the tracker. This may expose users with insecure systems to attacks." Given that, I don't know if it's possible to build a system that preserves anonymity, but if it is, it would make piracy relatively unstoppable.

    That said, I think these profit-driven companies with desirable, copyable content should look into other ideas for discouraging piracy.

  2. Here is a webpage tracking Congress's stand on SOPA and PIPA: