One morning my internet connection failed. I was living in New Zealand at the time, and it was not unusual both there and back in the States for the internet service I was using to go down from time to time. Expecting that this what was going on, I didn’t do much. I didn’t call the ISP or anything, I just went outside.
That evening, the internet was still down, so I called the ISP and got a shocking explanation:
“Sir, we’ve turned off your internet connection due to copyright infringement.”
I’ll admit I haven’t always been the most copyright friendly of people. College in 1997 was particularly rough on copyrights everywhere due to giving a bunch of immature young adults access to networked servers and a faster internet connection than dial-up; our dorm didn’t have cable, but we still all watched South Park when it aired. While in New Zealand, however, I hadn’t done anything.
So I asked what I allegedly did, and was informed that I illegally downloaded an audio book. Which I hadn’t, so I said as much, and the ISP employee responded with a sigh, followed by, “So, you want to dispute this then?”
Of course I wanted to dispute it; I hadn’t done what I’d been accused of doing! Since I had him on the phone, I decided to ask questions. How did I get accused? What was the process?
He then told me that the holder of the copyright for the audio book sent the ISP a list of IP ranges (not individual IP numbers) for computers that had downloaded the audio book. My IP address was within that range. They couldn’t pinpoint my specific IP address as the one that downloaded the audio book, but they were fine with taking the simple allegation of copyright infringement and shutting off the internet for all the customers who fell within that range.
He informed me that they couldn’t say accurately that I had done anything, which is why I get the opportunity to dispute the allegation (only after they’ve shut off the internet, though). After disputing and denying the infringement, he turned my connection to the internet back on and informed me that, if it happened two more times, I would not be able to get access to the internet at all, regardless of whether I denied infringement.
I felt very powerless. What was to stop some other company from reporting copyright infringement on the same IP range, bringing me in again? And knowing I had a finite number of chances to defend myself before I was automatically guilty, with a record of said guilt so other ISPs in New Zealand could see and deny internet service, was sickening. The company alleging copyright infringement didn’t need proof, they just needed IP ranges. How is that right?
At that time in New Zealand, the “three strikes” internet piracy rule was a fierce debate. It hadn’t been accepted yet, and many ISPs were fighting back due to the burden of proof being on the alleged and because they didn’t want to spend all their time shutting off their customers and going through the dispute process. Additionally, the corporations pushing for this “three strike” law were also pushing for the ISPs to share all their customer data, so they could better follow user traffic and internet usage to catch copyright infringement more efficiently (a move that most ISPs found rightfully abhorrent, and refused to comply with the various customer data requests).
While I credit the various ISPs for fighting back as best they could, it always felt like it was just a matter of time before the corporate lobbyists won (the three strike rule passed this year). And while I have nothing against a corporation, or person, getting their compensation for their copyright being infringed upon, I am against a “guilty until proven innocent” system that requires very little data to convict someone. I couldn’t wait to get back to the States, where the internet was free and I didn’t have to worry about such a scenario.
And yet, here we are with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) dangling over our heads. Think of what I just described above, but move it to a larger extreme. Now an allegation doesn’t shut down a user’s access to the internet, it eliminates the ability to access individual websites. Does that allegation need to be proven? No, it just needs to be made within a vague set of guidelines and, from there, the website in question may dispute and defend itself, most likely while access is denied in the meantime due to a temporary order (at least the Digital Millennium Copyright Act had provisions in place for those alleged of copyright infringement to remove the material or respond to it before any action is taken; all actions in SOPA, once made to an ISP or Domain Name Service, are to commence within 5 days).
Now, I may have some paranoia going on about all this, but since I’ve already been wrongfully accused of an infringement in the past, and punished because of it, I have a hard time thinking that this SOPA is going to appropriately achieve what it thinks it’s going to achieve; instead, I see a lot of websites that don’t deserve to be shut down getting removed from the internet as if they never existed. Let’s walk through a potential, though extremely paranoid, case study:
FilmThreat.com runs a negative review about some mainstream movie with a big studio behind it. Said studio dislikes the review, and decides to allege copyright infringement on FilmThreat.com. It could be a planted comment with a link to a piracy site, it could be a press image for the film or maybe an embedded video trailer; it doesn’t matter, the SOPA guidelines are vague at times, and err on the side of protecting the potentially infringed and not the allegedly infringing. Next thing you know, you and I can’t connect to FilmThreat.com. Sure, we can fight back and dispute but, in the meantime, the site starts to fade from memory. And not just for regular visitors, either. The site gets removed from search engines too. The online history of FilmThreat.com is suddenly gone.
Now, take that sudden disappearance of a website and make the process for disputing copyright infringement a lengthy and potentially expensive one (if the ISPs or DNS providers even want to deal with it; SOPA defends whatever actions they take to comply so completely it’d be less of a hassle just to remove websites without giving due process). Websites will drop like flies, and the ones that survive will likely be the ones that play the game exactly the way the big companies want them to play. The SOPA wording could be interpreted to protect review embargoes, whether or not film trailers are shared or seen online and any other number of creative ways to circumvent the aim of the act and instead serve the best financial interests of its lobbyist supporters.
Opinions will be censored, sites become more bland. Film sites will essentially be advertising for mainstream films (and while you could say that about some now, at least they are willingly making that decision). The little guys, the independents that can’t hold their own for months while their sites are offline, will die out. Welcome to the Mediocre, Co-Opted Internet, courtesy of SOPA and its supporters!
The major supporters of SOPA, such as the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, are trying to protect their copyrights, and at the same time set up legislation that can be used by others who have been infringed (indie films get torrented and abused too, and their potential monetary losses can be far more damaging, relatively speaking), and I respect that, but this is not the way to go. The potential for abuse, and the freedom-limiting potential of SOPA, is too dangerous to pass. Take a quick look at the supporters of the act, and question the “why”? Look at those coming out in opposition, and equally question motives.
I understand the logic of the progression: it started with bringing suits against the users for infringement, but that was costly and too hard to prove since ISPs weren’t always so friendly with sharing data; plus it was a public relations nightmare. Next it was about physically shutting down servers for infringing sites, but the most popular and prevalent of the infringing sites, particularly the ones in foreign countries, always just set up shop elsewhere. Now, rather than take a user to court or physically find and shutdown a server, it’s about shutting down the navigation between the user and the infringing server. I get it, it’s a simpler process, but one with the potential for far too much collateral damage. If the aim of SOPA is to eliminate copyright infringement, it shouldn’t necessitate wholesale freedom infringement at the same time.
No doubt you’ll be hearing a lot more about SOPA as 2012 goes on, and I hope my own paranoid fears are unfounded. Then again, what if the Mayan Calendar wasn’t predicting the end of the world so much as the end of the internet!?! Damn you, SOPA! Damn you!