The debate over the direction of the web has just started, and contradictory messages that need careful scrutiny are emerging from governments and corporations alike, says Kirsty Hughes
The Motion Picture Association announced this week that it would consider changes to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) to address concerns raised by tech companies such as Google and Yahoo. In a phone briefing this week, Michael O’Leary, senior executive vice president for global policy and external affairs of the Motion Picture Association of America, anticipated that opponents of SOPA and PIPA would remain unhappy with the bill, but that the ultimate goal was to have it passed in some form. He declined to give details of specific changes.
Proponents of the bill are trying to push it through the House of Representatives by 15 December, but are facing strong opposition. Critics of the bills are likely to see any effort at revision or toning down of language as grossly inadequate. If the bill fails to pass during this session, it is likely that next year’s election will make passing legislation even more difficult. Opponents have also gained Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) endorsement against SOPA. She has now publicly said in a statement:
I am fully supportive of the need to pass legislation in this Congress to combat intellectual piracy, specifically dealing with rogue digital theft sites. It is incumbent on the parties that are concerned by the current proposal to offer changes that would effectively deal with piracy. We must work together for an effective solution.
Cynthia Wong of the Center for Democracy and Technology recently expressed concerns that SOPA and PIPA could harm freedom of expression, privacy, and innovation online.
Another problem not addressed in O’Leary’s interview is the issue of DNS filtering, which has been deemed ineffective and technically problematic by experts. Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Labs recently wrote a letter to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California), stating that they believe DNS filtering would be ineffective, would negatively impact U.S. cybersecurity efforts and internet use, and would hinder security improvements to DNS. At one point the letter states that “one staff member characterised the proposed DNS filtering mandate as a ‘whack-a-mole’ approach that would only encourage users and offending websites to resort to low cost work-arounds.”
There are also signs of a potential bipartisan alternative to SOPA, proposed by Senators Wyden (D-OR), Cantwell (D-WA), Moran (R-KS), and Warner (D-VA); Reps Chaffetz (R-UT), Campbell (R-CA), Doggett (D-TX), Eshoo (D-CA), Issa (R-CA), and Lofgren (D-CA). The new plan is rumored to take responsibility in this area away from the Attorney General, and place it with the Internet Trade Commission (ITC). Happily, it is rumored that the proposed alternative would not include website blocking by ISPs and DNS providers, nor would search engines or others be required to remove links to such content.