While discussing SOPA with Moon Adamant, after reading this nice article from the WordPress gang, we came to the following conclusion: are legislators so stupid as not to foresee that all this will backfire?
Imagine that I’m ruthless Zuckerberg, the kind of guy who kills the animals he eats, and face being threatened to have Facebook shut down by Disney and Sony Entertainment and Warner Bros because some silly user — out of his 800 million users — just posted a link to pirated content from the entertainment industry giants. What will Zuckerberg do?
Obviously Zuckerberg will use his Russian connections and get all Disney forums spammed first with anonymous “users” who will place links to pirated content from their content — and denounce Disney as being uncompliant with SOPA. Before Disney does anything. Then Disney gets their sites down, specially the ones generating revenue.
Disney has no-one to sue: anonymous “hackers” from Russia are impossible to trace — they’re professionals. And will certainly enjoy attacking Disney first of all, and then slowly moving down all other SOPA-supporters. Imagine, a few hours after SOPA is in effect, having basically all entertainment giants’ websites — and their DNS providers, of course — all shut down. Immediately. Before even they know what had hit them, they’re off the net.
In the mean time, Facebook, Google/YouTube, Twitter etc. will swiftly leave their DNS providers and move their precious domains to someplace safe. Perhaps in Europe, or a registry in Australia, Japan, or any other country like that. Disney and friends can “fight back” trying to shut these sites down, but they will only manage to get them “off the air” in the US.
A cyberwar will start taking place, as competitors pre-emptively fill competitor’s sites with links to pirated content and file claims against each other. This will be top-down first. Who cares if a site with 100 visitors per month with one link with pirated content is hit, if the major players are suddenly flooded with millions of links to pirated content? It’s easy to do. It’s not even as if requires advanced technology. For a few hundred dollars, you can engage professional spammers to flood the ‘net with any kind of content — much easier than doing actual spamming. Before technical engineering teams start dealing with the new threats (i.e. updating their anti-spam tools), millions of SOPA claims will be up, and millions of sites will be forced to be shut down first, before their tech teams can get themselves rid of the pirated content. And even then there is no guarantee they will be able to eliminate every single reference to pirated content, thus making any counterclaims hard to prove in court.
Basically, the bill will be no good at stopping piracy—what it was apparently designed to do—but excellent at censoring any web site capable of providing its users with the means of promoting pirated content or allowing the process. This includes sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, and many more. If it’s possible to post pirated content on the site, or information that could further online piracy, a claim can be brought against it. This can be something as minor as you posting a copyrighted image to your Facebook page, or piracy-friendly information in the comments of a post such as this one. The vague, sweeping language in this bill is what makes it so troubling.
What would come next? Well, as many of you know, even though there is no “central” Internet authority, there is the “next best thing”: the IANA, which deals with IP addresses, and its many subsidiaries which hold the root domain name servers. This is the only “weakness” on the whole Internet: a single country (US) has a single institution (well, almost) which “controls” address assignments all over the world — even in China, Cuba, or North Korea. So far, because the US authorities have been “behaving well” for several decades, and in spite of some discomfort of knowing that the central nodes of the Internet are under the control of the laws of a country which can swing so unpredictably, the rest of the world did not make a serious threat to challenge the status quo.
But how will a world with an estimated 700-1,000 million people connected to the Internet outside the United States react when all of the sudden their websites will be pulled down — out of Google’s search engine, out of sight… — due to a law that can be put into practice assuming people are guilty (of piracy) before giving them the right to claim their innocence? How will the whole world face the issue that nasty spammers, with unreachable and untraceable tools, will “force” unwanted content — as comments, links, posts — to trigger the mechanisms in SOPA to pretty much exclude everyone they dislike from the Internet? I think that the rest of the world will very quickly start to question the US’ right to apply their silly laws to everybody else in the world (that’s the reason why many anti-SOPA organisations, unlike similar issues in the past, have engaged so many non-US citizens to aid their protests: they’re aware we’re all in the same boat because the US controls most of the root nameservers which can affect us all).
So probably before the whole world is plunged into Internet chaos, the whole world will pull themselves out of a sinking boat and let the US sink alone. Well, and at the same time, drawing most major US corporations to put their domains and their servers outside the US, too. Sure, the US has 300 million Internet users, but the world has five to seven times that amount. Sure, the US has a huge economy, but the whole world is bigger. It’s very realistic to expect companies to get their data out of the US as quickly as they can (Google runs hundreds of thousands of servers on data centres all around the world) to escape the drama of SOPA. And it’s just a question of time for US citizens to routinely install Tor software or similar technology just to be able to surf the Web like before — assuming, of course, a Web which is not under the control of the US government. In essence, that’s how citizens of China can today punch holes through their country-wide firewall and still get access to a taste of a free, uncensored world.
Let me tell you a short story which might illustrate what can happen. In the early 20th century, when the superpower was Britain and its Empire, the people of Tibet, afraid to be “contaminated” by British culture and civilisation, closed their borders and tried to live in isolation. Nobody could enter Tibet; nobody could leave it; as a result, Tibet’s teachings remained unaccessible to the whole world and mostly unknown and ignored. When China invaded Tibet in the 1950s, they thought they could use Tibet’s isolationism against them: by utterly crushing their culture and civilisation, they could erradicate Tibet’s Buddhists teachings once and forever, and effectively get their taste of religion out of the minds of Chinese citizens. But this backfired. The thousands that left Tibet brought its teachings with them. As a result, they’re now commonly available to pretty much everybody in the world. Things that once required journeys taking weeks or months to obtain are easily available via a search query on Google. By trying to crush Tibet’s Buddhist teachings, China actually did them a favour, by spreading them to the whole world and making them universally available — even to Chinese citizens.
I think that this whole SOPA silliness will backfire similarly. Instead of “fixing the problem of piracy”, what SOPA will achieve is an exile of companies and organisations out of the US and its crazy laws, and a distribution of the single-point-of-failure of the Internet — its root nameservers — outside the US. SOPA might ultimately achieve what we have been waiting for decades to happen: an even more decentralised Internet, independent of the laws and whims of a single country.
What does this all mean for Second Life users? SL – and possibly even LL — has been a target for several DMCA claims in the past, most notoriously by the industry giants who were unhappy about the amount of 3D content using copyrighted content floating around the grid. LL has, in the past, pre-emptively removed content to avoid any potential lawsuits: despite LL’s own Terms of Service, trying not to make them liable for the content their users upload to SL, big industry giants might simply don’t care: all they need is to push huge and expensive lawsuits against LL and wait until they get at least one that goes through — enough to create precedent, demand insanely high compensation fees from LL, and effectively shut them down. But because LL has an opportunity to claim innocence before getting hit by the consequences of those lawsuits, so far they’ve escaped being crushed in court. There were occasional lawsuits around copyright issues which tried to bring LL into court, but all were settled. They also were filed by the “small fry” who can only afford short lawsuits with quick settling.
Under SOPA, all it takes is a disgruntled resident to claim that LL is violating SOPA. They can just create an alt, upload an avatar based on a Disney character and file it as “proof”. Immediately — without even going to court — mechanisms are triggered under SOPA to make LL’s domain names disappear, thus preventing anyone not only to access the SL Marketplace, but to login to SL as well. Even if LL releases a new viewer based only on IP addresses and not domain names — or registers a new domain name outside the US — how will they announce that to the residents, when their own sites are all down? And they will be down not only in the US, but world-wide. LL might eventually file counter-claims proving that they are in no way related to that resident and that they made their best effort to get rid of copyrighted content in their own servers, but that will just take weeks or months of legal discussions. In the mean time, until a verdict is pronounced, SL will be down and unaccessible.
SL is relatively low-profile these days, but it could happen, and doesn’t even take a lot of effort — no need to hire a huge team of hackers and spammers based in Russia to spam LL’s sites with copyrighted content. All it takes is one alt and one disgruntled resident. Think about it.
So even if you’re pro-SOPA — because you have copyrighted content of your own in SL and would like better anti-piracy laws — you should review your position. Your competitors and enemies — the people angry at you for some reason — can very easily shut you down, too. If you have a website where you promote your products and services, it’s prone to attacks — and an attack is just someone that might post a comment on your blog while you’re asleep, with a link to copyrighted material, and when you wake up the next morning, your site and domain name are off the Web, and you have no way to get it back. If you are a non-US citizen but bought your domain name in the US or host in the US, you’re going to be affected as any US citizen. Even if your domain name is outside the US, you’re still not safe — US citizens might be unable to view your site, and thus unable to know about your content for sale in SL. Worse than that: if most people visit your site because you’re used to getting googled for it, Google might be forced to drop your website’s domain name from their database, in effect turning your website and your products unsearchable by anyone on the Web, not just US citizens.
So get in touch with any of the many anti-SOPA organisations which accept contributions from both US and non-US citizens and file your protest. Allegedly there are still a few US representatives doubting the wisdom of this choice and willing to vote against it, if they can be persuaded it’s the Right Thing To Do. It’s ironic that the Internet, designed in 1969 to survive nuclear attacks and still keep going on, is now in the hands of a few representatives which, depending on their vote, will effectively be able to shut down the Internet forever or not, based on their personal convictions — and affect the whole world, not just the people that elected them.
That’s a scary thought. Somehow this has to be stopped.
SOPA will backfire by Gwyneth Llewelyn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.