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SOPA blackout: WWIII

January 17, 2012

Tomorrow, Wednesday, January 18, is going to be weird and wild on the Internet. In protest against House Bill 3261, titled the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), some big-name websites upon which millions of people rely for social connections and information will disappear for 24 hours: Wikipedia, Reddit.com, Tucows.com, and dozens of others. Some of the organizations going dark are hosts, which means thousands of websites on their servers will disappear whether they actually agree with the protest or not.

This whole thing is very exciting. It’s a World War Involving Internet Independence – WWIII – the people of the world against the governments of the world. Last year in North Africa we saw people using social media and cellphones to overthrow dictators, and apparently the power-hungry statists in the U.S. government didn’t learn the lesson. If the Arab Spring demonstrated the power of the Internet, tomorrow’s blackout is the most important battle in the war.

The hosting company for JPAttitude.com is HostMonster, and I called them to ask if they planned to participate. They don’t. They said they don’t want to risk irritating hundreds of thousands of customers, which means they at least discussed the notion before deciding against it.

So far, as I write this late Monday evening, the biggest name going dark tomorrow is Wikipedia, the free online collaborative encyclopedia. Hear, hear, Wikipedia! Maybe their example will breathe some courage into the giants still trying to make up their minds about going dark: Google, Facebook, and Twitter. (C’mon, guys, it’s time to step up. Do you stand for something besides money?)

There are few issues that can unite Americans across all political spectrums, but SOPA manages to do it. Arch-conservatives like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, Tea Partiers, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) are aligned with far-left Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ACLU, Google, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

On the opposite side, trying to destroy the Internet, is Hollywood – primarily via their lobbying entities, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). They have a problem with rogue websites in foreign countries selling pirated versions of their copyrighted material. It’s a legitimate complaint, nobody argues that point, but the problem isn’t nearly as big as they claim – they’re flat-out lying about the economic impact of copyright piracy – and blowing up the Internet is a silly way to handle the issue.

Because they can’t sue fly-by-night copyright pirates in Zimbabwe, Hollywood proposes that they be given the right to sue hosts like HostMonster, search engines like Google, and social media sites like Facebook, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Even worse, SOPA allows for prior restraint, an evil concept indeed for a free society. In other words, Hollywood has a problem they lack the imagination and dexterity to solve, so they want everybody else to suffer.

The Supreme Court has on numerous occasions made it clear that suppressing speech before an adversary proceeding and subsequent judicial determination that the speech in question is unlawful is a presumptively unconstitutional prior restraint, the “most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.” That’s what the Supreme Court says. Here’s what SOPA says on page 13 regarding Internet service providers like AOL, HostMonster, Verizon, Microsoft, etc.:
“(1) SERVICE.—A process server on behalf of the Attorney General, with prior approval of the court, may serve a copy of a court order issued pursuant to this section on similarly situated entities within each class described in paragraph (2). Proof of service shall be filed with the court. (2) REASONABLE MEASURES.—After being served with a copy of an order pursuant to this subsection, the following shall apply: (A) SERVICE PROVIDERS.— (i) IN GENERAL.—A service provider shall take technically feasible and reason able measures designed to prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States to the foreign infringing site (or portion thereof) that is subject to the order, including measures designed to prevent the domain name of the foreign infringing site (or portion thereof) from resolving to that domain name’s Internet Protocol address. Such actions shall be taken as expeditiously as possible, but in any case within 5 days after being served with a copy of the order, or within such time as the court may order.”
In other words, some Hollywood lawyer complains and BOOM! JPAttitude is removed from the Internet by HostMonster.

Here’s what SOPA says on page 38, regarding payment network providers, which are entities like PayPal and Google through which websites get paid:
“(2) REASONABLE MEASURES.—After being served with a copy of an order pursuant to this subsection, the following shall apply: (A) PAYMENT NETWORK PROVIDERS.— (i) PREVENTING AFFILIATION.—A payment network provider shall take technically feasible and reasonable measures, as expeditiously as possible, but in any case within 5 days after being served with a copy of the court order, or within such time as the court may order, that are designed to prevent, prohibit, or suspend its service from completing payment transactions involving customers located within the United States or subject to the jurisdiction of the United States...”
In other words, some Hollywood lawyer complains and BOOM! JPAttitude.com stops getting paid by Google and can’t access its funds at PayPal. My money has been taken without a single day in court.

If SOPA is passed, here is a hypothetical outcome for JPAttitude.com: somebody who disagrees with my political viewpoint could petulantly claim that I am stealing his compositions thereby violating his copyright, and get a court order removing this website from the Internet. Even easier – forget about the hassle of getting a court order! – he or she could write to HostMonster and simply suggest that he will get a court order, and because of the draconian penalties which HostMonster would risk incurring, they would have to remove JPAttitude.com from the Internet.

That’s prior restraint on steroids.

I would have the option of going to court and arguing it’s not true, which I, like most website owners, cannot afford to do, and I would also have the option of suing the petulant jackass for damages, but since JPAttitude doesn’t really make any money there would be no damages to pay. Bottom line, the petulant censorship-lover would risk nothing, and my website would disappear until I go to court... which, again, I cannot afford to do.

Basically, SOPA gives the U.S. government the ability and power to create and enforce an Internet blacklist. They claim they only want to fight copyright pirates, but once the government grabs power, we know what happens. They increase that power inexorably, they warp the original intention of the dumbass legislators who gave them that power, and they end up tyrannizing innocent citizens. For an example, look no further than the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which was passed in 1970 ostensibly to give the federal government a tool against organized crime, but mutated into a monstrous device used against ordinary citizens by power-mad U.S. prosecutors who routinely use RICO statutes to pile extra charges and extra prison time upon the targets of their prosecutions. With RICO they can take people’s money and assets before their trials, making it almost impossible for Americans to defend themselves in federal court because they cannot afford lawyers, and also assuring their bankruptcy even if they’re acquitted. In all modern democracies and republics, the presumption of innocence is a basic tenet of the legal system, but RICO erases it.

Now SOPA will erase another basic tenet: the prohibition against prior restraint. At some point, Americans need to wake up and confront the question of whether they are still a free people.

If MPAA and RIAA are the enemy in this battle, then Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are their paid mercenaries. Smith, the main sponsor of SOPA, gets the biggest share of his campaign contributions from (drum roll, please) Hollywood. While Hollywood isn’t Reid’s number one source of funds (it’s number eight), he actually collects more money from them than Smith does, so he presumably owes them more. These are bought and paid-for politicians, pure and simple.

When Lamar Smith’s House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on SOPA, on November 16, 2010, the hearing was immediately legendary for the extravagance of the incompetence on display. Smith was afraid of the backlash from the Internet community so the committee called no witnesses to testify who possessed any technical knowledge about the matter under discussion. Add to that the normal ignorance of your average congresscritter and the hearing turned into a national joke. Witnesses kept admitting they couldn’t answer the questions, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) blurted, “We have no technical expertise on this panel today,” and Rep. Dan Lundgren (R-Calif.) whined about his “very serious concerns” while admitting, doggone it, “we don’t have enough information.”

The hearing was a fiasco, but Lamar Smith has been too well paid to let the bill die so SOPA continues to move toward passage. This past Saturday, under an onslaught of outrage from both Republicans and Democrats, Smith retreated a little by agreeing to drop the requirement that Internet service providers (like Charter, Verizon, AOL, etc.) block Hollywood-determined offending websites. Nobody has seen his amended bill yet, so nobody knows what it will say, and Harry Reid has not retreated in the Senate, so this was just a small skirmish in the larger battle, but it was won by the good guys.

Another skirmish was won when Majority Leader Eric Cantor promised Darrell Issa that SOPA won’t move forward unless there is consensus. The question now is whether Hollywood has enough money to purchase that consensus. Hollywood being Hollywood (rich) and congresscritters being congresscritters (dirty money-grubbing thieves), SOPA will probably pass.

Unless...

If Google steps forward and joins the blackout tomorrow, that will be like the United States jumping into World War II. People will be screaming bloody murder from sea to shining sea and the battle will be won. No matter how much money Smith and Reid are collecting from Hollywood, they can’t ignore millions of screaming Americans who suddenly can’t Google-map and Google-search and can’t read their Gmail. If Facebook joins, too, and Twitter... well, just imagine how frustrated Anthony Weiner will get. That alone might be enough to scare Smith and Reid into doing the right thing.

Anything’s possible.


From Reno, Nevada, USA       



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