Series of Tubes: the PROTECT IP and Stop Internet Piracy Acts

The PROTECT IP and Stop Internet Piracy Acts are the hot new ideas fresh out of Congress guaranteed to bring Internet Piracy to a screeching halt. While breaking the Internet and instituting an “Internet death penalty.”

'People who don't understand the internet, writing laws to regulate the internet and getting help and advice from people who want to own the internet. Let's give 'em a big hand, folks: The PROTECT IP and Stop Internet Piracy Acts!' - James Agle

The PROTECT IP Act (AKA Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011, AKA S.968) is currently stalled in the Senate, largely thanks to our very own Senator Ron Wyden, who slapped a hold on it. This bill, formerly known as Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which failed to pass in 2010, aims at so-called “rogue” websites, particularly those outside the US, that are “dedicated to infringing activities.” (Wikipedia)

The PROTECT IP Act attacks pirating and copyright-infringing websites by attacking their advertisers, the credit card companies working with them to accept payments, Internet service providers (ISPs) and search engines. The bill does this by granting the Attorney General the right to seek a court order that would stop the aforementioned companies from doing business with the offending website. It would also require the companies in question to stop linking to the offending site, stop returning it in search results, and assure that the domain name of the site will no longer resolve to the actual site.

The Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA, H.R. 3261) is similar to the PROTECT IP Act. Exact information on what’s in SOPA is unfortunately thin on the ground at the moment, but by all reports, it’s more severe and wide-ranging than the PROTECT IP Act.

“It would allow the FBI to seek injunctions against foreign Web sites that steal music, films, software and other intellectual property created by U.S. firms. The bill also includes provision that could hold third parties — payment-processing and other partners — responsible for piracy and counterfeiting on other sites, some critics say,” said Cecilia Kang of the Washinton Post. She added, “Critics say the bill could too easily put individuals and companies under suspicion merely for writing about or linking to a site suspected of infringement.”

The PROTECT IP and Stop Internet Piracy Acts sound reasonable at first glance, but they come pre-packaged with a host of both technical and civil liberties problems.

“The new House legislation (HR 3261) is an unwarranted expansion of government power to protect one special interest. The bill would overturn the long-accepted principles and practices of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act notice and takedown process in favor of a one-sided enforcement mechanism that is far more broad than existing law while not attempting to protect the rights of anyone accused of copyright infringement. In addition, anyone who writes about, or links to, a site suspected of infringement could also become a target of government action,” said Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of, of SOPA.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D, CA) told CNET in an interview, “I’m still reviewing the legislation [SOPA], but from what I’ve already read, this would mean the end of the Internet as we know it.”

Wikipedia offers a nice summary of both sets of issues, but it’s worth pointing out here that the actions taken against “infringing websites” not only don’t work, but might cause actual issues with the structure of the Internet. Pruning the domain names, as called for by both Acts, could also represent First Amendment violations, by hampering people’s ability to get to lawfully hosted content located on a website, which has been “pruned” for some other infringing item.

Both the PROTECT IP Act and SOPA are garnering plenty of opposition. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, told reporters months ago that Google intended to fight the Senate bill. The Guardian reports Schmidt as saying, “If there is a law that requires DNSs to do X and it’s passed by both houses of congress and signed by the president of the United States and we disagree with it then we would still fight it. If it’s a request the answer is we wouldn’t do it, if it’s a discussion we wouldn’t do it.”

The Electric Frontier Foundation is against these bills, too. Corynne McSherry, the intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in an interview with CNET,

“One thing is clear: Big Media is doing its best to accomplish in Washington what it couldn’t in court,” McSherry told CNET. Supporters of the measure want to eliminate, she said, legal “safe harbors that have made possible an explosion of economic growth, innovation, and creativity. And, it is not a little ironic that a bill that proposing massive interference with the Internet ecosystem is being introduced just as human rights advocates from around the world are meeting in Silicon Valley to talk about the problem of internet censorship.”

It’s interesting that this Congress is choosing to attack Internet piracy through ham-handed legislation when recent studies suggest that capitalism is actually the answer here. CBC News reported in May of this year,

However, a study published by the U.S. Social Science Research Council concludes that governments can’t effectively legislate consumers into getting their online media legally. Media Piracy in Emerging Economies is the first major independent study of internet piracy in countries such as Russia, Brazil and South Africa, and was funded in part by Canada’s International Development Research Centre.

It found that anti-piracy education has done little to stigmatize illegal downloading in emerging economies and that market conditions are directly to blame.

“The failure of legal markets to provide access to goods at prices that are affordable in terms of local incomes fuels a situation in which high piracy becomes the primary form of media access,” said study editor Joe Karaganis.

Despite the music industry’s insistence that they’re bleeding money thanks to piracy, a 2010 article in the Journal of Study stated, “Based on two large empirical studies and a validation exercise with a large sample of more 2,000 college students, the model results indicate that the music industry can benefit from removing DRM because such a strategy has the potential to convert some pirates into paying consumers. In addition, a DRM-free environment enhances both consumer and producer welfare by increasing the demand for legitimate products, as well as consumers’ willingness to pay for these products. The authors find that producers could benefit by lowering prices from currently observed levels.” (via the Moderate Voice)

In short? Make things quick, convenient, and reasonably priced to reduce piracy and make more money. Legislation wrought with constitutional affronts is not the way to go here.

Technically, these bills are aimed at foreign websites like the Pirate Bay or Demonoid, and technically, they’re supposed to make it easier for the United States to get these sites shut down. In practice, these bills are so over-broad, over-powered, and badly-written that it would be easy to misuse them.

As Nate Anderson of ArsTechnica writes, “…the potential for abuse — even inadvertent abuse — here is astonishing, given the terrifically outsized stick with which content owners can now beat on suspected infringers.”

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