Going dark on Wednesday

Like many far more important Internet sites, this blog will be going dark on Wednesday to protest the proposed Internet censorship bills SOPA and PIPA. If passed, these bills would give content owners the power, without judicial oversight, to shut down entire web sites and compel banks and other financial institutions to freeze the site owners’ assets. As someone who runs a web site that allows user-generated content to be posted, this means that I could personally suffer financial ruin should someone decide to include copyrighted content in a comment on a post here. Or even if they didn’t; major content owners have demonstrated a willingness to file DMCA takedown notices for content that isn’t even theirs, and somehow I doubt they’d be more cautious under SOPA or PIPA.

SOPA and PIPA would also establish a government-mandated DNS blacklist to block allegedly infringing sites and prohibit measures to circumvent the blacklist. This would make technologies like DNSSEC — which are finally starting to be rolled out to help make sure that when you try to visit a web site, your computer has some assurance it’s talking to the correct server — potentially illegal. Furthermore, it should go without saying that giving the government the power to shut down web sites without any kind of judicial oversight is an unconstitutional prior restraint on freedom of speech, even if it weren’t ripe for abuse by private parties.

SOPA and PIPA would make running a business on the Internet extremely hazardous. Having a company’s assets frozen is effectively an instant death penalty; even if the courts later find the accounts were frozen illegally, the damage would already be done. It’s hard to keep a web site running if you can’t pay for Internet hosting, after all, and by the time the courts would clear your name, the business would be down for weeks, if not months. A single action under SOPA or PIPA could take down Facebook or Google, and content owners hate YouTube-running Google.

Lest you think I’m being hyperbolic here, consider this: the RIAA blasted proposals to have the International Trade Commission (ITC) handle web sites devoted to copyright infringement by pointing out that the ITC will have taken 33 months to finish dealing with a mobile patent case and underscoring a need to be able to take immediate and direct action. Well, yes, that’s how due process works; both sides get to make their case to a neutral third party. Evidently the RIAA would prefer mobile companies to be able to freeze each others’ assets at the first claim of patent infringement. And given that pretty much every company in the mobile industry is suing every other company over one patent or another, you could easily see the entire mobile device industry collapsing, or at the very least grinding to a halt overnight. That’s the content industry’s vision of how the Internet should be.

Online copyright infringement may be a problem (or just blown way out of proportion by bogus claims), but SOPA and PIPA are breathtakingly blunt instruments to deal with the problem that make large content owners judge, jury, and executioner over the entire web. Either bill, if passed, would swiftly cripple innovation on the web and would jeopardize the continued existence of most sites you visit daily.