Why SOPA may be America’s worst mistake

America seems to have come out with a new (although hardly an innovative) way to censor links it feels violates copyrights–although the fact that they do not have to justify themselves makes one wonder if they will not also ban legitimate links that work against them, as many have begun to see. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is more than meets the eye; following in China’s footsteps–but going one step too far–the US government hopes to pass a bill that, will give them absolute rights to decide what one sees and what one does not, on the Internet.

The Web has often been celebrated analogous to freedom in more ways than one: speech, art and in general expression of almost any form. But, leveraging on a few acts of piracy, and apparently using it as a veil, the government hopes to gain the rights to ban stuff on the internet, and–as giants such as Google, Yahoo!, eBay and Netscape see it–effectively the Internet itself. Either way, SOPA is slowly being seen as a technique to undermine the framework of free expression.

Dissecting SOPA

While more and more people around the world are slowly finding out about SOPA–and a number of non-US sites–are writing (read: fighting) against it, there happen to be a much lesser number who know the full implications of this act.

In a nutshell, SOPA is a bill targeted at sites hosted outside the US making them susceptible to be banned, should the US government feel so (which is the catch here, as I see it.) Delving a little deeper into it we find SOPA to list the following clauses ((Paraphrased, read this extract for more details on Section 102)):

  1. Order internet service providers to alter their DNS servers to prevent resolving the domain names of websites in foreign countries that host illegal copies of videos, songs, and photos.
  2. Order search engines like Google to modify search results to exclude foreign websites that host illegally copied material.
  3. Order payment providers like PayPal to shut down the payment accounts of foreign websites that host illegally copied material.
  4. Order ad services like Google’s AdSense to refuse any ads or payment from foreign sites that host illegally copied content.

The main concepts behind SOPA happen to be piracy and copyright infringement. While these are problems to a good extent, SOPA  is an immature approach to solving them, following on the lines of the repeatedly disproved procedures of strengthening copyright laws to protect piracy. This, as Mike Masnick puts it ((Read Mike Masnick’s article)), will only increase cases of infringement as the main problem centres on consumers being underserved: it has never been a question of being free.

Historically, infringement has never been about “free,” but about indicating where the business models have not kept up with the technology.

Mike Masnick[[/perfectpullquote]]

What is interesting to note, however, is that this will not apply to domains ending with .com, .net or .org because they all are hosted under existing US laws, and SOPA targets non-US (or, more specifically, US-directed) websites.

Continuing onto the next section, Section 103, of SOPA, it requires payment processors and advertisors to shut down accounts should they receive the right kind of letter from a copyright owner — a system modeled on the notice-and-takedown provisions of the current Digital Millenium Copyright Act ((This requires a services, like YouTube, to pull down infringing content after the copyright owner complains.)) which has been both used and abused and is retained simply because it allows YouTube to avoid direct responsibility for the actions of its users —  it would have been otherwise sued out of existence by now.

(While we are on that topic, it is interesting to note that the film production house, Viacom, which is a major supporter of SOPA is suing YouTube for 1 billion and has equated <em>free</em> to <em>stealing</em> stating 'piracy costs money and jobs.' <a href="http://rt.com/news/internet-giants-slam-sopa-915/" target="_blank">Ironically, as RT reports</a>, <em>Viacom's</em> able CEO made84 million in 2010 alone.)

The Anti-SOPA Stance

A number of major Internet players have joined in protesting against SOPA. Google–whose ruling over half the web is arguably the most important voice needed to oppose SOPA–has recently come out with a massive public whiplash stating “the bill would give Washington Internet censorship rights similar to China, Malaysia and Iran.” Google is openly opposing the views of a number of big entertainment companies (which constitute the main supporters of SOPA) such as Viacom, Disney and TimeWarner. And, in agreement with others boasting an equally big presence (such as Wikipedia, Yahoo! and Flickr, PayPal and LinkedIn) are urging Congress not to risk the “tremendous benefits the Internet has brought to hundreds of millions of Americans and people around the world.”

Another idea worth noting is the support Google can give: right now, Google is busy in world domination intelligently buying the most successful participants in every niche of the Internet. Google currently owns services like Android, Picasa, YouTube, Google+, AdSense, AdWords, Maps, Analytics, Docs, Talk, Chrome, Panoramio, FeedBurner, Blogger, Flights, Calendar, Books, Translate, TV, Voice, Local, Goggles, Places and — perhaps their one main product Google is synonymous to — Google Search.

Google vs SOPA?

(Courtesy, FORBES/Paul Tassi)

Another important contributor to this opposition of SOPA happens to be Reddit. The social news site has officially laid plans to black out the active website from 8AM to 8PM, for 12 hours, in opposition to SOPA. On their blog, Reddit made their intention clear:

Instead of the normal glorious, user-curated chaos of reddit, we will be displaying a simple message about how the PIPA ((PIPA, is an acronym for the Protect IPA Act, a U.S. Senate version of SOPA.))/SOPA legislation would shut down sites like Reddit. A few months ago, many people thought this legislation would surely pass. However, there’s a new hope that we can defeat this dangerous legislation.

The new hope that the Reddit team mentions happens to be a major flow of stance-shift among both Republicans and Democratics in the Congress with politicians from Ron Paul to Nancy Pelosi openly offering their support to Anti-SOPA activists.

The Lamar dilema

US Congressman Lamar Smith, who perhaps contributed most to creating this entire hullabaloo called SOPA (and whose intentions, to me, seem shady at best,) seems to have forgotten to cover his tracks after he changed the look on his website where he had been using stock photographs without credit, and therefore, by his own bill, would have ended up in places he probably hoped to avoid.

Uri Gellar, the popular psychic who performed spoon bending and other tricks on TV in the 1970s… had YouTube pull videos of him being humiliated during a 1973 appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, when he had no copyright claim to them at all. This is exactly what will happen with Protect IP and SOPA… Give people a club like this and you can kiss the Internet as you know it goodbye… It’s a clear violation of our First Amendment right to free speech… [And] the accused doesn’t even have to be aware that the complaint has been made.[[/perfectpullquote]]

The wonderful sleuthing work was done by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete over at Vice.com when he examined an older, cached version of Lamar’s campaign website and found at least two major cases of copyright violation which, on the one hand Lamar pretends to hate, but on the other, he began using it as his surefire ticket to a seat in the Congress.

Supporting Lamar are a whole bunch of companies who are jumping at the first chance to get SOPA passed. In a letter addressed to the Congress ((You can read the 9-page long, entertaining letter here)), they have pledged their support to the bill. Alongside this, Vice.com has begun its innovative ‘Shop a SOPA’ Copyright Hypocrite Hunt (which you can join) to spot copyright infringements on websites of SOPA co-sponsors (of whom Lamar happens to be the main candidate.) As it turns out, Lamar’s office has conveniently decided not to reply to the letter Vice.com sent them demanding an explanation.

Wikipedia, GoDaddy and others

In a note on Wikipedia, founder Jimmy Wales wrote, “I’m all in favor of it, and I think it would be great if we could act quickly to coordinate with Reddit. I’d like to talk to our government affairs advisor to see if they agree on this as useful timing, but assuming that’s a greenlight, I think that matching what Reddit does … is a good idea.”

Another big issue that arose was against Internet Domain Provider, GoDaddy. In fact the place most of the opposition stemmed from was Reddit. A short time ago GoDaddy was a big supporter of SOPA, but soon Reddit was overhauled with Boycott GoDady shouts and in no time the company switched its stance in a blog post and is now a big Anti-SOPA activist.

Individuals are also making great efforts to protest against SOPA. Paul Tassi made a profile picture (below) urging Anti-SOPA people to move a step further by using this image as their profile pictures on social networks; there is also his Facebook event for people posting censored images (such as the one below, sporting a censored under HR 3261, SOPA banner.)

Courtesy Paul Tassi

The Pirate Bay

Now comes the underbelly of SOPA. To most people–at least to us who are familiar with the ways of the Internet and the laws governing its use–it is quite clear who the main target of the SOPA bill is: The Pirate Bay. The website is, to many, the resource of everything they cannot otherwise lay their hands on; everything that should really be in the public domain but is not: from films to software.

As the trust CNet News recently reported, SOPA is all about going after one website, and because the existing OPEN Act does not provide provisions to bring down Pirate Bay.

Yet, SOPA has equivocated, thwarted and confused itself so much that, as Masnick rightly points out, the provisions in the bill do quite the opposite: they make The Pirate Bay immune! SOPA cannot touch The Pirate Bay’s main website, ThePirateBay.org, which is a .org domain hosted under US-laws (i.e. a US website) while the new bill only targets US-directed websites and as we saw earlier this puts The Pirate Bay out of SOPA’s jurisdiction.

This is an important point to note. As I see it, formulating a complex bill, although consisting solely of alphabets, actually requires good logical and mathematical calculations to see no clause renders another null and void. I do not expect any congressman to have this ability.

To take this surprise further, note that the US Congress statistics of rogue websites getting 53 billion websites that the government still childishly dwells upon is actually unaddressed (or rather addressed once and then once again, rendering it void the second time.) At the centre of this entire argument, apart from The Pirate Bay, were file hosting websites RapidShare and MegaUpload. Both of these are also effectively immune to SOPA.

In Conclusion

Am I against SOPA? In a way, yes. The intent of the bill is appreciable, but the lousy way in which it has been formed as it now stands is not. The Internet was the one place on Earth that was never run by a government of people, never constrained by strict laws and never curbing creativity and freedom. In fact, I often quote the Internet as the perfect example of how beautifully people can govern themselves. Do think about this.

However, on the other hand, I could not care less about SOPA because in the pith it is just a bunch of words with no solid execution mechanism. Unlike a common parliament bill, SOPA cannot be enforced on the Internet. We come back to my previous point here, the Internet is run by people around the world, not the US government. In case you failed to understand my point, let me elaborate: As TechDirst points out, even if SOPA is passed, the game becomes the word of the US Congress against everybody with technological knowledge around the world. It is hardly an even match because, at the end of the day, no matter what big blockade SOPA puts up, people can go around that with ease. They can, for instance, adopting a foreign Virtual Private Network system–which, if you are wondering, is absolutely legal!

On why I think it is too early for biometric identification

‘Passwords have become obsolete’ was what IBM Speech CTO, David Nahamoo, said–at least effectively–in IBM’s Research News blog. His main point was that our current use of identification and security, our trusty passwords, were a) really insufficient security b) hard to remember. (Incidentally, I suspect Mr Nahamoo has over 50 log-ins to remember.)

Everything we do online, or via a computer, requires authenticating who we are – user IDs and passwords are our safeguard. But the security isn’t foolproof. Our IDs and passwords can be stolen and our mobile devices can be lost or stolen.”

–David Nahamoo[[/perfectpullquote]]

IBM 5 in 5 Security

Given that all my computers, especially my laptops up to this point, have been IBMs, I am particularly fond of–and familiar with–their multiple attempts at user security/protection. Perhaps the farthest back I can recall is the face recognition on my first IBM laptop. It was fascinating at first but I was forced to remove it when I ended up making faces in public just to turn on my PC.

It is really worse than it sounds. Anyway, then came their fingerprinting technology and that too was a nuisance to me until I changed my laptop all the way to the one I now own–free from any of that biometric hassle. At this point I may have come off as a biometric identification hater of some sort, but really, I am a fan of the entire concept so long as it does not leave those glazed pages of comic books.

Personally, I believe that biometric security is a little adolescent right now; the time when one can use it as efficiently as it is meant to is quite far away.

Devices and security

Another key point Mr Nahamoo raises is the high likelihood of devices like our PDAs, laptops and such–all which store our sensitive data–getting ‘easily lost, stolen or misplaced.’

I concede to this point. But, while these devices themselves may be lost, we already have the option (which, sadly, I do not see too many people using) to handle our data on the cloud. So if this data is accessible from anywhere, through any device, including those we will own at some point in the future, the only setback (and that brings us to square one) is the fact that we need to remember passwords and such to access this data repeatedly. And the stolen devices may be permanently blocked, mind you.

The solution

What solution Mr Nahamoo proposes is the replacement of passwords and other related concepts that require us to–as he puts is–memorise, store and secure account IDs and passwords, with biometric security systems. ((For the benefit of a minority of my readers, biometric systems are seemingly straight out of sci-fi works; they are such systems as gaining access using traits peculiar to an individual, including, but not limited to, their eyes, voice and style of walking. Inasmuch as this usage seems feasible, I see some major problems which are no less a trouble than remembering passwords.))

At the very start is ruled out the possibility of that cliched sequence where a villain terrorises you and forces you to either scan your eye or state a pass code or place your fingerprint or all of those in order to gain access. This is simply because the biometric systems we are talking about are far more advanced than what we think them to be. They can, in short, identify stress, pupil dilation, changed heart rate and breathing patterns to find out if you are accessing the account of your own will.

While all this seems great on the one hand, on the other–ironically–this is exactly where I see a problem. The entire system forces one to behave rather mechanically; to put it shrewdly, you have to make sure you have the same heart beat, constricted pupils and the same breathing rate as you did when you first input these data.

The problems I see

Firstly, this obviously rules out people in an urgency (who constitute about half the metropolitan population nowadays.) In an urgency your breathing rate becomes abnormally fast and increases your chances of getting blocked out of your own account. This, of course, is perhaps only until you calm down again which I do not see happening, given that you were in a hurry in the first place.

Secondly, let us assume you just saw something that melted your heart (I would hate to go into the details of that; it is quite unlike me to do so) then you would naturally find your eyes dilated. ((Once again, for a minority of my readers, let me define this process of eye-dilation. The pupil (right at the centre) of the eyes tend to shrink–this shrinking is called dilation–due to a number of reasons: too much light can cause this dilation as a response on the part of your eyes that reduce the amount of light entering; drug intake can cause quick and lasting dilation (and for those who think only illegal drugs cause it, you have another thing coming: do check your eyes after taking most prescription medicine and you ought to find noticeable dilation!); allergy from some plants causes pupil dilation, although many may argue that the chances are slim; soon after an eye exam, for as long as an hour, (most) eye drops that are administered into your eyes immediately cause a dilation, but once again one may claim the chances are slim; lastly, what I believe to be the most significant contributing cause to pupil dilation: looking at somebody/something you like. In short, you are highly likely to be kicked out of your own account soon after a dinner date.))

Thirdly, if you had a cold–unless they make allowances to an extent, sacrificing security in turn–and your voice changed, your account would never let you in. Clearly, each time you fall ill, the chances are your voice changes in a slightly different manner. Making such an allowance as I just mentioned would make it easy for an imposter to gain access even speaking just close enough to your actual voice.

Now some would argue that although each of these would by themselves fall, together they will create a stronger biometric system.

However, consider this: you have an identical twin (remember fingerprints can be lifted off any object and reused) their breathing and voice would be close enough for them to gain access to your account. Or perhaps a case where you have just missed you bus and have to withdraw some money from an ATM so you run up to it only to find it will not let you in because you are breathing differently. Or even the case where you just spent some time with a loved one (or your opthalmologist/optician who is not also a loved one) and realised your account disowned you because your pupils are a tad too dilated.

In short, while the technology does have the potential to enter mainstream society–and I am confident it will–sometime in the future, now is just too soon. To satisfy our curiosity, we will, for the moment, have to make do with select IBM products; and personally, I would rather remember several passwords (and telephone numbers, while we are on the matter of remembering) than be shunned by a (literally) heartless device because I ran out from an overly bright room.

Biometric systems are just not ready for today. As the game now stands, the good old combination of log books and strong passwords hold a one up over biometric technology.

If, after all this, you still like the idea of biometric security, do not forget to vote for it (read IBM’s report before you do that) on the company’s blog.

I follow IBM’s A Smarter Planet blog. They have some interesting things going on there, so if you want to see tomorrow today, I suggest you head there and find a way to keep up with their fairly rapid updates.