January 10, 2012

Sen. Whitehouse Supports Ill-Conceived SOPA/PIPA

Patrick Laverty

Sometimes, it isn't too bad being a nerd or a geek. Or as I guess as some geeks refer to themselves, a g33k. It's nice because when the news picks up a story that includes the discussion of DNS servers and IP addresses, I can more easily pick up on what they're trying to say and what the intent of the story is. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Congress. Unfortunately, this is worse than

We have to pass this bill so you can find out what is in it.
I'm referring to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill number HR3261, in the House and its related Senate Bill, Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).

In a perfect world, the intent of these bills makes some sense. The goal is to protect intellectual property.

Someone who is savvy enough can today find all kinds of copyrighted material on the internet for free. From first-run movies to copies of music or even popular video games that can usually cost upwards of $50 a copy, all can be had for free. Assuming you're willing to do a little searching and willing to risk the side-effects of accidentally visiting a site ready to infect your computer with viruses and spyware.

Whether you agree with current US intellectual property law (author's lifetime plus 70 years) is a separate question. The question is how far should the government be allowed to go in order to enforce that law in foreign countries. Because that is the real issue here, that in general, the web sites serving up this property, are hosted in non-US countries, and out of the jurisdiction of US law. This leaves the hands tied of law-enforcement and leaves the people who make money off this software (i.e. Hollywood studios) frustrated.

Rather than remaining frustrated, many Hollywood studios have put together a law that would attempt to block these rogue web sites from continuing to serve their content in the United States. Look at it as a giant web firewall around the United States. The result would be for these web sites to effectively disappear from the internet.

The way that this would be achieved is by breaking DNS. DNS is the domain name system, comparable to a phone book for web sites. We have DNS because people are better at remembering names, like anchorrising.com, which is a domain name for a web site (incidentally the number one political blog in Rhode Island). Computers are better at using numbers, like, which is an example of an IP address for a web site. When a person types a domain name into a browser, the name goes to DNS and looks up the physical address of the site, also known as the IP address.

If these bills are passed, when someone lodges a complaint against one of these sites and attains a court order, the site owner will have five days to muster an effective appeal, or the domain name will be removed or redirected from the DNS. Additionally, the scope of the bill, the part that defines who can complain about a copyright infringement and what the infringement needs to be, is pretty broad and vague.

Maybe you don't violate copyright laws, you don't post videos or games or songs online, so you have nothing to worry about right? Maybe not. It depends on what the owner of the copyright would like do with that. Maybe you have a family web site and post a picture of a family picnic where someone is holding a can of Coca Cola. Did you get approval from Coke's lawyers to use their logo in your photo before you posted it on your web site?

Maybe that's extreme and it'll never happen, but it could.

That is the real problem with this bill, is its vagueness. Some have said that this is like using a chainsaw when a scalpel is all that's necessary. One of the major problems here is the lack of Congressional understanding of how the internet works, but yet they are waving off the experts telling them how the bill is flawed. During the debate, the bill's co-sponsor Mel Watts of NC even bragged about how he's "not a nerd" with regard to his understanding of the technical specifics, yet then continued to talk about why this bill, as it is written, is necessary.

Congress is scheduled to vote on these bills January 24.

Yesterday, Congressman Jim Langevin came out against SOPA/PIPA, for the exact reasons that I have outlined. Neither Cicilline nor Reed have issued an opinion yet.

In Senator Whitehouse, we have a different situation. He clearly supports it as he is a co-sponsor of PIPA (follow the money), the Senate's version of the SOPA bill. Conveniently, Senator Whitehouse is sponsoring a community dinner at Barrington High School this coming Thursday night from 6-8 pm. The dinner is first come, first served. This might be an great opportunity for people to go see Senator Whitehouse and let him know what you think about his support of this bill.

Lastly, I made no mention of anyone's political affiliations in this bill because for once, they're irrelevant. This might be the most bi-partisan/non-partisan yet contentious bill I've ever seen in Washington. We have Democrats and Republicans coming down on both sides of this issue. Even a couple weeks ago, local progressive David Segal also came out against these bills. And it's not just those who create the intellectual property who are in support of this bill, local game developers 38Studios is also opposed to the specifics of the bill.

This is an issue where the uninformed is trying to make a highly technical decision, and they're not listening to the technical people. This is a bill that could end up having chilling effects on how we use the internet every day.

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On this issue there is no right and left, but simply right and wrong. And Senator Whitehouse is wrong. He will loose this Democrats vote for this, and most likely in perpetuity.

Posted by: DC at January 17, 2012 11:28 PM
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