Congress’s Piracy Blacklist Plan: A Cure Worse than the Disease?

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Last month, Yahoo quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, over the Chamber’s support of a Senate anti-piracy bill known as the PROTECT IP Act. Now Google is considering doing the same over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a companion bill recently introduced in the House. These high-profile walkouts are a sign of what’s at stake.

For the content industry—including Hollywood and the recording industry—SOPA and PROTECT IP are necessary to fight foreign copyright infringers that usually stand outside the reach of U.S. law. Domestic domains, such as those ending in .com or .net, can already be seized by the government with a court order. However, U.S. authorities don’t have the power to seize foreign domains, and such domains are often used by sites that illegally stream movies and sports or offer music for free downloads.

(MORE: Verisign Seeks Authority to Shut Down Websites Without Court Orders)

SOPA and PROTECT IP allow the government to target foreign sites by essentially disappearing them. How the bills accomplish the disappearing act is among the issues that rankle the Internet companies.

The Domain Name System (DNS) is what translates easy-to-remember website names, like TIME.com, to their true numerical Internet addresses, like 216.35.74.104. When you type in a website name, your computer queries a DNS server to get the numerical address. Most consumers use a DNS server provided by their ISP, though some use third-party servers like the Google Public DNS.

SOPA and PROTECT IP would allow prosecutors to get a court order declaring a foreign site as infringing, and the order could then be used to require DNS service providers to block the allegedly infringing sites. This means they will essentially be required to keep a blacklist of rogue foreign sites, and when a user tries to get the numerical address for a blacklisted site, the server would have to return either nothing or an error page. As far as the user is concerned, the site will have disappeared.

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There are many reasons to dislike these anti-piracy bills—from overly broad definitions of what counts as infringement, to how they may shift the burden of policing from content owners to the service providers—yet the proposed meddling with the Internet’s Domain Name System is the most alarming.

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