Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Memoriam: SOPA and PIPA

SOPA and PIPA--two bills that Hollywood said would save their industry, and that the Internet community argued would destroy theirs--are dead. SOPA and PIPA supporter Gavin Polone, a producer of Zombieland and Curb Your Enthusiasm, among others, writes an angry eulogy of sorts over at the New York Magazine website:

Mark Zuckerberg, Craig Newmark, the Google guys, and all of the other tech superstars slammed it to those traditional media companies promoting the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) last week, managing to stop the bills. They are so fucking smart and cool. They are also so fucking wrong.

Hey, Gavin, watch the language! This is a family-friendly blog!

According to them, these laws will result in censorship, undo economic hardship for their companies, and a breakdown of Internet security. If you believe them, you haven’t read the law and are ignoring common sense.

I did read the laws. You can too, here: SOPA, PIPA.

Luckily, you don't need to go too far in before you start finding problems. Like the definitions page:
(5) DOMESTIC INTERNET SITE- The term `domestic Internet site' means an Internet site for which the corresponding domain name or, if there is no domain name, the corresponding Internet Protocol address, is a domestic domain name or domestic Internet Protocol address.

(6) FOREIGN DOMAIN NAME- The term `foreign domain name' means a domain name that is not a domestic domain name.

(7) FOREIGN INTERNET PROTOCOL ADDRESS- The term `foreign Internet Protocol address' means an Internet Protocol address that is not a domestic Internet protocol address.

(8) FOREIGN INTERNET SITE- The term `foreign Internet site' means an Internet site that is not a domestic Internet site.
These definitions only seem sufficient if you have no idea how the web works. Take for example, a popular website used for shortening domain names for sites like Twitter. Technically, the .ly part means this website is controlled by the country Libya. But the site is actually based in the Meatpacking District of New York City, and has nothing to do with Libya (the .ly site now redirects to This is only one example-- many sites, including Google, Facebook and others, have domain names registered to other countries. Are these "foreign sites?" If you're a lawyer, you could argue that they are, based on the definitions laid out in SOPA and PIPA. And SOPA and PIPA don't treat "foreign" sites that nicely.

This is just one example of the sloppiness of these bills.

Most people can agree that movies and music shouldn't be illegally downloaded for free. They understand that enormous sums of money and lots of hard work are used to produce this material, and downloading it from a file-sharing site is stealing.

But SOPA and PIPA were badly written laws. "Common sense" tells us that these bills should target the sites that host these copyrighted files and allow them to be downloaded. This is not what SOPA and PIPA do. Instead, they're written so broadly (with terribly vague terminology and a lack of understanding of technical terms) that they can be used to shut down legitimate sites like Reddit, Facebook, Wikipedia and YouTube that host user submitted content that occasionally includes some copyrighted material.

It's the equivalent of shutting down all of Times Square because some people on the corner are selling pirated DVDs. Why not arrest the guys selling the DVDs instead of closing the whole area?

Hollywood was attempting to go nuclear with SOPA and PIPA, when they really should have gone for a targeted approach. They set themselves back by overreaching, and the internet masses made them pay for it.

Hollywood should work together with the major internet players and experts on information technology to draft legislation that would specifically target the bad guys, without holding website owners responsible for the rogue actions of a few lawbreakers that use their site.

They can also change their antiquated business model, by providing what the people want-- a cheap and quick way to download movies and music for home use, and a way to share that with a circle of close friends.

Law can be a blunt instrument, if written by people who lack the understanding of the industry they're trying to regulate. With SOPA and PIPA, Hollywood was going for something far too splashy, far too big.

Hopefully Hollywood's next attempt will be less "summer blockbuster" and more "art house indie film."

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