SOPA: Due Process Is for Chumps!

freedom of speech

The Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) [H.R.3261] would subvert the rights and protections from tyranny listed in the United States Constitution. Why? Here’s what I think. But first a little “digital lawn” tending. {Translation: back story explaining my philosophy on things.} One of my pet peeves is people who like to distort things to make them or their ideas look good in order to get people to side with them. One of the first tricks is to get you to use their language. What they do is they come up with words that make them look good and then attack others with words that make them look bad. Lawyers know this, as do politicians, and George Carlin built an act around pointing that out years ago.

SOPA is a deceptively named bill written to serve the interests of very few people that not only protects their interests, but tramples on the rights of more than just the people they want to stop. The argument is that online piracy is hurting content creators, such as the MPAA, because people can download movies or other content without paying the price the producers have set for it. At its foundation, it’s a good idea to stop depriving people who did the hard work of creating content from making a living on it. However, the implementation part of SOPA is completely wrong.

SOPA would make it so anyone could accuse any site of carrying content illegally and, without a judgment or trial, have that site effectively and even literally shut down. Its revenue stream would be cut off until the site operator could file an explanation as to why it is not in violation. A site that was accused of SOPA violations could have its DNS entries pulled, be filtered out by a search blacklist, and have its advertising revenue cut off. There’s a very good reason this is being called the bill that would kill the Internet as we know it.

The way SOPA does this is by making the people who would have to shut down payment processing and serving the site immune from prosecution if they voluntarily comply. Most would—because it would be a lot cheaper than being listed among the defendants.

Imagine there was a party in the real world that was accused of breaking the law, such as—I don’t know—people being accused of witchcraft or some completely hypothetical circumstance. These people could be forced to prove their innocence, or else face termination. But that could never happen, because in the real world people are much more sensible, right? SOPA takes advantage of the abstract nature of the Internet and non-physical products to abstract the equivalent real-world example in hopes that people do not realize what it really means.

SOPA violates some things the judicial branch was set up to prevent. First, it doesn’t require anyone to go to court and prove someone is running a site that’s illegally hosting content you created. Second, the accused would be required to file an explanation order to avoid being shut down. Remember innocent until proven guilty? SOPA inverts this.

In addition, an entire site could be pulled down for one infringing link or piece of content. Imagine if a person shot a cellphone video, posted it online, and had music in the background that wasn’t cleared for permission. If CNN picked up the video, it could be taken down by a complaint filed by the RIAA, as could YouTube or other mainstream sites. More likely, this bill would be used to shut down any site that has content that someone else does not like.

I could claim that I shot the video on a small political site of a police officer beating an old lady, and I owned the rights to it. If I was being paid by the police department or the mayor and appointed to a position or received some other benefit, I wouldn’t have to even mention that. If you wanted to take down Fox News, claim you shot any home video they showed. You don’t need proof. It could easily disrupt them long enough to cost them quite a bit. Or claim that a news anchor is quoting your copyrighted work without your permission. It really doesn’t matter, the burden of proof isn’t yours and you could shut down anyone long enough to do “economic violence” to them.

Only those with deep pockets could actually afford to make false claims, and it might be cheaper to do that in some cases than let the content stay public. Also, only those with deeper pockets than the accuser could afford to defend themselves because smaller entities would be more quickly and effectively disrupted by a suspension.

The implications of the bill extend far beyond file hosting sites and video sites. It doesn’t distinguish types of content and could force a person to disclose trade secrets to prove their innocence. It could even shut down open-source projects and code repositories if a company claims that the software hosted on a site violates their software patents.

The most interesting thing is that it would do little to actually stop piracy. Alternative services hosted offshore would pop up beyond SOPA’s reach, and encryption would bypass any IP filtering and deep packet inspection and avoid detection. SOPA would only really negatively affect everyone besides the pirates this is meant to crack down on.

But this is only a potential future, and one that anyone that doesn’t want it to come to pass can do something about, such as write emails to their congresspeople. Forget about form letters on advocacy websites. A personally written, intelligent argument in an email or actual letter carries far more weight. (By the way, even if your representatives are already saying they are opposed to it, make sure they stick to their guns.)

If SOPA does pass then, as Bender would say, “Due process is for chumps!” would be the censors’ warcry as sites were silenced, and an “undernet” would form that would likely be outlawed as well because then they could say use of a secret network is evidence of illegal activity. After that, the next stop is Brazil.

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