SOPA and PIPA: Intellectual Property Protection At What Cost?

By Ramee Mossa

Last week, many websites such as Wikipedia, Reddit and Google shut down or took action to protest two bills in the American Congress: The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). SOPA and PIPA are essentially anti-piracy bills whose main goal is to prevent access from within the US to websites which "engage in, enable, or facilitate" the infringement of intellectual property. But if these bills are passed, it could usher in an era of widespread censorship affecting every website in the world and with unforeseen political repercussions.

SOPA and PIPA would allow industry associations, like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), to ask a judge, any judge, to order the shutdown of a website, within the US or not, based solely on the site being suspected of involvement in piracy. Broadly speaking, they could force American companies to stop doing business with the site; force search engines to delete the site from its directories; and force the removal of the site from the Domain Name System (DNS) server (basically making sites unavailable under simplified addresses, like “”).

The problem with these bills is mainly the way in which they are worded, which brings a plethora of legal problems and loopholes which would open the door to censorship and corporate sabotage on the Internet, while doing little to actually shut down sites infringing on intellectual property. The sites would still exist on a foreign server; all one would need would be the physical IP address to reach the site (for instance, is one of Google’s physical addresses). In fact, Firefox has automated this process with a plug in allowing the browser to automatically circumvent DNS blocking measures.

SOPA in particular is attempting to circumvent this fix by requiring Internet service providers (ISPs) to block physical IP addresses as well. The only way to achieve this, however, according to Markham Erickson, the Head of the NetCoalition Trade Association, is through "deep packet inspection”. This requires ISPs to scan through all the data going in and out of their customers’ computers to ensure they are not visiting an IP which has been blocked, basically amounting to wiretapping. This same technology can, without much modification, scan and analyze everything that someone is doing on the Internet.

The bills are further criticized for allowing established companies to shut down competing startups, since it requires very little actual proof that a site is infringing on intellectual property for a complaint to be filed. Further, it puts the burden of proof on the accused, shutting down the site immediately and requiring it to prove its innocence afterwards. In the fast-paced world of the Internet, being offline for a week, let alone for months of legal proceedings, is a trauma very few sites can recover from. Such actions could be used to kill off competitors, and SOPA has a clause which, in effect, prevents countersuits for claiming damages.

The bills also open up the possibility of the shutdown of legitimate sites, such as YouTube, Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook, which allow their users to post, upload, share or link to copyrighted content. One video posted on YouTube could result in the shutdown of the entire site, not just the removal of the video.

There is also the fear that other countries might follow in the footsteps of the US. If each country begins blocking sites to its citizens it would result in the fragmentation of the Internet. In other words, the Internet could look drastically different depending on which country you are accessing it from.

From a political perspective, these bills would aid in destroying the Internet as a tool of democratization and social movements. While the US Government funds the creation of tools meant to circumvent Internet censorship to allow organizations in authoritarian countries the ability to access the Internet and communicate freely, these bills might require that the government crack down on these tools. This would strengthen SOPA and PIPA while simultaneously destroying the primary communication methods of people and organizations fighting authoritarian governments abroad.

Essentially, SOPA and PIPA would change the Internet in a way which would make it easier for governments to censor it. Google’s public policy blog argues that “these bills would grant new powers to law enforcement to filter the Internet and block access to tools to get around those filters [and] we know from experience that these powers are on the wish list of oppressive regimes throughout the world.”

While SOPA and PIPA attempt to tackle a legitimate problem, they go too far. There is no reason to believe that corporations and their representatives (particularly RIAA AND MPAA) would act responsibly; in fact, history has shown that the exact opposite is true. If SOPA and PIPA are passed, the explosion of legal attacks could devastate Internet commerce, innovation and freedom.


27 January 2012