Thu, Jan 12, 2012 - Page 9 News List

US war on piracy could jeopardize free speech on the Internet

By John Naughton  /  The Guardian, LONDON

The key to survival — in business as in the jungle — is the ability to learn from your mistakes. The strange thing is that some industries have not yet figured that out. Chief among them are the so-called “content” industries — the ones represented by huge multimedia corporations which own movie studios, record labels and publishing houses.

Every 20 years or so, technology throws up a challenge to these industries. For example, when audio cassettes arrived, the music industry fought tooth and nail to have the technology outlawed or crippled. Why? Because it would encourage “piracy.” What happened? The record labels wound up making lots of money from cassettes as well as records.

Then along came the video recorder and the movie industry fought it tooth and nail because it was the handmaiden of the devil — on account of facilitating “piracy.” What happened? Same story: It turned out that the studios were able to make tons of money from videocassettes because films continued to sell long after they had disappeared from cinemas.

Since then the story has been repeated at least twice more — with DVDs and portable MP3 players. So you would think that the penny would have dropped in what might loosely be called the minds of those who run the content industries. The lesson is that new technologies that look like threats can become glorious opportunities. However, there is still no evidence that media moguls have grasped that simple idea.

Which brings us to the Internet and the SOPA opera currently playing to packed audiences in the US Congress. The initials stand for the Stop Online Piracy act and it is currently before the US House of Representatives, which for these purposes is a fully paid-up branch of the movie industry. Its sister bill in the US Senate is the Protect IP act (PIPA). Both bills propose laws that would allow the US attorney general to create blacklists of Web sites to be censored, cut off from funding or removed from search engine indices.

PIPA was introduced to the Senate Judiciary Committee in May last year and quickly passed through its initial stages until US Senator Ron Wyden, a congressional leader on free speech matters, managed to put a temporary hold on the bill. However, PIPA is not dead, merely sleeping.

SOPA arrived in the House in late October and despite noisy opposition from a broad coalition of engineers, entrepreneurs, Internet users, developers, student groups, legal academics and libertarian groups, the House Judiciary Committee scheduled only a single, heavily biased, hearing on it.

What is wrong with SOPA? Well, for starters it probably violates the US constitution and would certainly curtail free speech, threaten whistleblowers and undermine human rights. If implemented, it could put the US government on the same side of the line as China, Myanmar, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian regimes that seek to control and censor the Internet.

However, the most worrying aspect of these bills is that they would distort the architecture of the Internet in ways that would cripple its capacity for enabling innovation — something that has been eloquently pointed out to members of the Senate and Congress by many of the network’s original architects.

The reason for their concern is that the proposed legislation would tamper with the domain name system (DNS), which is one of the core components of the Internet. This is the system which translates domain names into a machine-readable code that enables any computer in the world to find the site.

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