placing the web under the sword of damocles

December 11, 2011

Usually, if you try to pass a law that regulates a sophisticated, multifaceted piece of technology, you would get together with a wide spectrum of experts to figure out how what you’re planning to do will affect the technology and its use in the real world, then modify your proposal accordingly. Or you could just, you know, follow what the lobbyists who know just as little about the technology as you tell you, and create a mess which would entail ridiculous risks for every website or blog owner in the United States, then name it PROTECT IP and SOPA. As has become the custom of the current Congress, they went with the latter method of lawmaking and are really thinking about passing a law which will allow anyone to take down your site at a moment’s notice without just cause or due process. Even not reacting to a takedown request quickly enough can terminate your site, cut off any payments you receive for it, and land you on search engine blacklists for alleged offenses.

As my long-time readers know, I always strive to put all sorts of interesting images to go along with my posts and a lot of these graphics come from various image search sites, and often, the images don’t have attribution to their original creators. Sometimes that’s by design because the creators meant to submit it that way, other times the images were submitted without their permission. Realizing that this happens, I have a special note on the FAQ page telling image owners to contact me if their image is used without proper attribution or simply remove it completely if they don’t want it associated with the post. Over the last three years, I got a total of two such e-mails, one asking for a takedown, and the other for attribution, and we resolved things quickly and very amiably. Under SOPA, both of these e-mails could’ve shut down Weird Things and severed payments from its syndication deal if either of the rights holders thought that a day was too long to wait for me to check the blog’s inbox and respond. And guess what? Virtually every blogger would have the same exact problem. We can just be humming along today and get yanked out of existence tomorrow thanks to a random complaint.

Even worse, science blogs are at risk from creationists, psychics, and anyone else whose ideas we’d critique because while cranks are already a viciously litigious lot when allowed to be, armed with SOPA, they would have the power to shut down skeptics entirely. They’ve done this before by removing videos criticizing canards by creationists with fake copyright claims, saying that using snippets of their videos was an infringement and trying to get the skeptics responding to them banned on YouTube. Nevermind that using quotes for parody or criticism is protected under the Fair Use clause and that such protection is vital for lively public discourse. An overburdened and terrified host that doesn’t want to get sued will simply yank a site based on nothing but one irate pseudoscientist’s or creationist’s claim, unwilling and unable to go into details of whether the claim was legitimate or not. SOPA basically opens the door to a whole new kind of harassment and censorship, one that can seriously impact the flow of good science and reason on the web. Should we even start thinking about all the atheist blogs and communities that sprang up in the last five or six years?

Considering that those writing for and using these sites get death threats and vows of action against them or their fans and family members, do we even need to spell out the kind of damage religious fundamentalists on a rampage can do to their online work? These copyright protection laws are extremely open to abuse, and will enable outright legalized censorship where the most thin skinned and the most aggressive will dictate what can be said, by whom, and in what tone. Hopefully both these bills wither and die in Congress and a new tool for copyright enforcement can be created, one that doesn’t put the entire web at risk of being gutted by greedy or easily offended trolls, or put a gun to the heads of any tech service which distributes user-managed content to make it more conveniently accessible. In their current state PROTECT IP and SOPA would kill tech jobs, as well as silence numerous blogs that don’t have the resources to pay their hosting company wads of cash for keeping them open while they fight the allegations against them. All courtesy of the people who thought that the total shutdown of the internet would be a great way to defend ourselves from a cyber-attack

[ illustration by Ramyb ]

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  • Steven

    What’s your take on “distributed DNS” and other schemes people throw around as ways to decentralized the net and stop this?

  • Greg Fish

    Distributed DNS would make it more difficult to shut down sites on a whim, however, unless you have a vast DNS network of your own to counter the existing ones, it won’t do that much good in the long run.

  • Jypson

    I would love to take a trip to DC and ask our fine representatives what the internet is and what it is used for. See what their understanding is of its function and what hurdles they might face trying to regulate content. Something tells me as a whole they are utterly clueless and any attempt to follow through with their “plans” will be a complete debacle.

  • The Internet and its freedom of speech are the mortal enemies of the monster that the US Federal government has become. They must destroy it at all costs, or be destroyed themselves. Sadly, the brainwashed drones and lemmings will support the enemies of the Internet, probably in the name of “freedom”, “our kids” or other such Goebbelsian nonsense.

  • Greg Fish

    Conway, so if the U.S. government is terrified of free speech, why doesn’t it crack down on any negative news coverage of its activities, especially since negative coverage has been all it’s gotten on news channels for the last year or so? You want to see a state in which the government is cracking down on free speech? Try Turkey and it’s crackdown on journalists. Want to see a state where the government decided that no free speech should be allowed, ever and actively bans it through force? Try North Korea.

    Creating a law open to abuse through ignorance of what’s happening and thanks to a disproportionate reliance on short-sighted and technically illietrate lobbyists is not the same thing as actually regulating internet content. If you bothered to actually read what SOPA and PROTECT IP are all about, you would’ve noticed that the government would play no role in taking down sites. Instead, it would allow companies or private groups to force hosts to take down sites they say abuse their intellectual property without any requirement to prove their allegation first. It’s they who would do the censoring.

  • Greg, you seem to have entirely too much faith in the amoral, power-mad creatures ruling us, or you are in complete denial of the world around you. There is an old saying: “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” – and that is exactly what this is.

    Oh well, you don’t strike me as a stupid individual – perhaps you are young and idealistic; given time, that will change, human nature being what it is…

  • Greg Fish

    Condescension following a regurgitation of conspiratorial cliches does not make an argument better. It just makes you look smugly sure of yourself. You have not actually presented any evidence to the idea that either of the bills are a tool for the government rather than private individuals to censor the web, just that you’re sure that this is the case and anyone who doesn’t see things the same way is either in denial, an idiot, or naive. Not a very persuasive argument.