by Tony Westbrook

SOPA withdrawal – what it means for CIOs

Jan 16, 20125 mins
GovernmentIT LeadershipIT Strategy

The last time you watched a big disaster film, you’ll probably recall the use of a familiar dramatic device to crank up the tension: As our hero goes about his dull monotonous life, some rolling news event plays out on the TV behind the his head – in all probability he doesn’t even notice this. However, before long we realise that this rolling news coverage is the very thing the movie is all about.

So it had been with The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) due to be discussed in Congress at the end of January. It was something that had only just started to get noticed, even by Obama’s advisers. The White House belatedly issued challenges to the scope of the draft just two weeks before its scheduled late January debate, and effectively scuppered it.

SOPA was proposed US legislation aimed at making it easier for US copyright and IP holders to take action against foreign sites they determined to be involved in illegal activity, including the distribution of counterfeit and copyrighted goods. This was, paradoxically, a bill being supported by the very Hollywood directors and producers who use such techniques of suspense for your entertainment.

Movie and music companies and trade groups were wholesale behind the bill, and maybe you think that’s fair enough. They were, after all, only protecting their intellectual property. And anyway, it all happened over there, and we are over here…

However, draconian powers were defined in the bill. If passed, a US government could have required US companies and ISPs to cut off access sites that deemed to have broken the rules by controlling DNS and search engine access at source. The legislation had been drafted sufficiently vaguely to allow cut-off of an entire domain rather than forcing the correction of an identified transgression on the relevant page or area of a site.

So, lets say you had been a UK e-commence companywith a domain selling high end leather goods. Maybe you offered the opportunity for your customers to comment on the products you sell, because such recommendations improve sell-through rates. Lets suppose one of theses customers had posted a review of your product saying: ” This bag is rubbish. Go to where you’ll get a steal…”

Under the intended SOPA legislation, US courts could have put you out of business as a result of one errant customer’s posting. They could have instructed that your entire web site (or sites) be disabled by forcing US based domain registration mechanisms to deny access to your entire domain. Even if that didn’t happen, Google and other search engines could have been compelled to remove all links to your web site, and Paypal and other business systems that operate through or from the US could have been been prevented from sending you money legitimately earned.

Companies which rely most heavily on user content were particularly worried about the prospect of such legislation: YouTube; Wikipedia; Reddit and many others saw themselves as under significant threat, as did blogs, music sharing, social networks, and a thousand other categories of site. Anywhere users could, by mistake or intentionally, post links to copyrighted material: Any web page with a ‘comment’ field on it, in fact. This is why many such companies threatened to “go dark” for a day in January in visible protest at the bill.

In any case, any CIO knows that the bad guys will quickly find ways around this kind of blunderbuss legislation; That the illegal sharing of copyright material supposedly targeted would continue unabated. And that it would only have been be hundreds of millions of legitimate users, including your customers, who would be disenfranchised by such crass, incompetently drafted legislation.

SOPA has now been withdrawn by Republican Senators in response to the tardy White House feedback.. But irritation in the non-US world remains: How can US government and politicians pursue legislation in support of its domestic business, taking no account of their responsibility to the wider internet community?

Bear in mind that other legislation of equal folly is still in transit through the US Senate: the Protect IP (PIPA) act, for example, seeks similar powers for the US to block domains engaged in what they perceive as illegal activity. So even with SOPA gone, those scripted TV news bulletins continue to play out behind our movie hero’s head…

In 2005 the UN proposed taking control of DNS services from the US, but the US Congress didn’t want to see any change in control. No wonder: Now we see the US using that same control to protect its national interests above the rest of the world. De-facto development of the internet which allowed national interests to control parts of a global entity has surely reached its inevitable tipping point. Access to global web sites and online services is too important to remain under US governmental control any longer.

SOPA not dead yet, says Jimmy Wales