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.
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 184.108.40.206. 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.
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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First, blacklisting and disappearing sites will likely do little to stop committed pirates. For one thing, a blacklisted site will still exist and will still be accessible from its numerical address.
A quick Google search shows that there already are pirate streaming sites known only by their numerical IP address. There are also browser plugins that will translate a rogue site’s name into its numerical address even if the DNS server doesn’t (although SOPA would criminalize the distribution of such add-ons). And a committed infringer could also simply switch to using a foreign DNS server not bound by the U.S. blacklist.
As for casual infringement, it’s true that some users may well simply give up after an unresponsive query. On the margin, therefore, DNS filtering will no doubt reduce piracy. But what we have to ask ourselves is, at what cost? And that cost is legitimizing government blacklists of forbidden information.
At a moment when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is urging world governments to keep their hands off the Internet, creating a blacklist would send the wrong message. And not just to China or Iran, which already engage in DNS filtering, but to liberal democracies that might want to block information they find naughty. Imagine if the U.K. created a blacklist of American newspapers that its courts found violated celebrities’ privacy? Or what if France blocked American sites it believed contained hate speech? We forget, but those countries don’t have a First Amendment.
The result could be a virtually broken Internet where some sites exist for half the world and not for the other. The alternative is to leave the DNS alone and focus (as the bills also do) on going after the cash flow of rogue websites. As frustrating as it must be for the content owners who are getting ripped off, there are some cures worse than the disease.