The US Stop Online Piracy Act is a threat to liberty and must be stopped

The Internet Blacklist Legislation -- known as PROTECT IP Act in the Senate and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House -- is a security threat that must be stopped.

That kind of language goes against the knee-jerk reaction I have to fearmongering. But in this case, it is necessary.

Let's look at the anatomy of this legislation, with help from colleague and IDG News Service scribe Grant Gross. He writes in his primer:

The Stop Online Piracy Act, the subject of a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Wednesday, has generated heated debate since lawmakers introduced it on Oct. 26.

The bill, called SOPA, would allow the U.S. Department of Justice and copyright holders to seek court orders requiring online advertising networks, payment processors and other organizations to stop payments to websites and Web-based services accused of copyright infringement.

Supporters of SOPA argue that U.S. law enforcement officials need new tools to fight websites, particularly foreign sites, that sell infringing products, including music, movies, clothing and medicine. Some infringing products are dangerous; others cost U.S. companies billions of dollars a year, supporters say.

Opponents of the bill argue it would empower litigious copyright holders to seek court orders targeting many legitimate websites, including sites with user-generated content such as Twitter and YouTube. The legislation would overturn the notice-and-takedown process in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and would slow U.S. technology innovation, with new Web-based services likely targeted by copyright holders, critics say.

SOPA would lead to censorship of legitimate websites and protected free speech on sites that may contain some infringing content, critics say. The bill is inconsistent with the U.S. Department of State's push for Internet freedom worldwide, they say.

"This is a bill that would eviscerate the predictable legal environment created by the DMCA, subjecting online innovators to a new era of uncertainty and risk," said David Sohn, senior policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "It would force pervasive scrutiny and surveillance of Internet users' online activities. It would chill the growth of social media and conscript every online platform into a new role as content police."

Here's why I see this legislation as a security threat:

Even though it's not the bill's intent, the language would give the government power to squash any website it deems in violation of the law. If a big technology company were to object to content posted on a security research site or blog -- details of a software vulnerability, for example -- it could lean on the government to block it. The big vendors would then be free to sit on vulnerabilities for as long as they wanted.

But that's just a small piece of the problem.

When you think of all America's efforts to protect its citizens, the goal is always to protect A WAY OF LIFE. Our right to free speech and expression. The Internet has allowed that freedom to flourish in the form of personal blogs, social networking and so on. If the government gets the power to block that freedom, all our other security efforts will be rendered meaningless.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) does a good job of explaining what's at stake on its website:

The Internet Blacklist Legislation - known as PROTECT IP Act in the Senate and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House - is a threatening sequel to last year's COICA Internet censorship bill. Like its predecessor, this legislation invites Internet security risks, threatens online speech, and hampers Internet innovation. Urge your members of Congress to reject this Internet blacklist campaign in both its forms!

Big media and its allies in Congress are billing the Internet Blacklist Legislation as a new way to prevent online infringement. But innovation and free speech advocates know that this initiative is nothing more than a dangerous wish list that will compromise Internet security while doing little or nothing to encourage creative expression.

As drafted, the legislation would grant the government and private parties unprecedented power to interfere with the Internet's domain name system (DNS). The government would be able to force ISPs and search engines to redirect or dump users' attempts to reach certain websites' URLs. In response, third parties will woo average users to alternative servers that offer access to the entire Internet (not just the newly censored U.S. version), which will create new computer security vulnerabilities as the reliability and universality of the DNS evaporates.

It gets worse: Under SOPA's provisions, service providers (including hosting services) would be under new pressure to monitor and police their users’ activities. While PROTECT-IP targeted sites “dedicated to infringing activities,” SOPA targets websites that simply don’t do enough to track and police infringement (and it is not at all clear what would be enough). And it creates new powers to shut down folks who provide tools to help users get access to the Internet the rest of the world sees (not just the “U.S. authorized version”).

It's time to put the pressure on your elected officials. Tell them to send this legislation to the ash heap of history where other threats to liberty have been sent to die.

The EFF page I link to above makes it very easy for you to send your elected officials a message asking them to vote against this legislation. Simply go to the top right of the page, enter your zip code, then fill in your name and address.

Do it now.

Thanks for listening.

--Bill Brenner

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