If you have been reading many articles online, you would have heard of the “Great Firewall of USA”, also known as the Stop Online Piracy Act. The original intent of this act was to simply block any website who was trying to infringe on US company’s copyrights and patents, and to impose heavy penalties on those who infringe these rules. However, is it really that simple?
The act states that if an infringement was found, the US Attorney General can order US based companies to stop doing business with them. For example, Google would have to freeze the infringing company’s advertising account, VISA would have to stop providing financial services to the company, and more.
However, it seems like the implementation of such a solution is not so simple. As the bill would require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the US to totally block access to a infringing website, much more drastic measures would have to be taken.
First of all, it would mean that the government would act as a middleman between users and the ISPs, or between ISPs and the Internet. The government would be able to scan through the network all the time to determine if any infringing websites are being let through. This would undermine current measures to secure the Internet with the new DNSSEC (Domain Name System Security Extensions) specifications. The DNSSEC specification was created to protect end users from forged DNS data, which is becoming increasingly common nowadays.
Secondly, since the government would require ISPs to ‘know’ what sites its users are visiting, this opens up a huge debate whether this sacrifice of users’ privacy is actually needed. After all, this bill is only supposed to protect the revenue of US-based companies.
Thirdly, it is very hard, if not impossible to restrict this kind of content totally. It is known that there are simply too many ways to get around this kind of restricted content. Furthermore, current systems are not foolproof. Even the best algorithm in used today produces many false positives.
Lastly, it states that streaming copyrighted content without permission is a crime punishable by law (Section 201). A user can stream up to 10 movies or pieces of music in six months. If found guilty of streaming more than the allowed amount, a first time offender can be jailed for up to 5 years! As mentioned above, to detect a user streaming such content would also require deep packet inspection, which would intrude into the user’s privacy.
Currently, this act is supported by the MPAA, RIAA and other unions in the music and movie industry; and is opposed by web content providers like Google and Yahoo, social networks like Facebook and Twitter, the Business Software Alliance which includes Apple Inc. and Microsoft, human rights organizations and others.
So how ethical is this act?
If we analyze it from the utilitarian point of view, the affected parties are the end users, the organization whose revenue is being affected by piracy and the service providers. If this act is implemented, the users are the one who would ‘suffer’ the most, as everyone is being criminalized. A user would not be able to ‘opt-out’ of this system even if he/she does not infringe the law. As new systems are required to perform this deep packet inspection on each and every user’s Internet traffic to detect streaming of copyrighted material, the user’s privacy is also greatly affected. They would not know what kind of information would be recorded. Service providers would also not be too happy of this act as they would lose some revenue. For example, if a website using Google AdWords was found to be infringing this act, their account would be frozen, and Google (as a service provider) would not be able to earn the revenue which is generated from that website. However, the company whose revenue was being affected by piracy would benefit. This is as the act would reduce the amount of piracy which is going on in the US. However, this impact is limited as it is very hard for users to return to their old ways of buying products the traditional way. Therefore, from this analysis, the only group which would be happy is the company whose revenue was affected.
As far as protecting IP is important, this act is clearly not the right way to do it. It raises too many issues which are currently not an issue. Furthermore, it seems that this act is only made in favour of the companies whose revenue are affected. This is clearly not a national security issue where individuals have to consider if their rights were more important than the nation’s security. Also, if this act gets passed, the government has every reason to pass a similar act which “protects national security (by banning government critics)” or “protects certain groups from unwanted websites like pornography”. All this would lead to unwanted censorship of valid websites.
A reason why this is happening might be because companies are not willing to change their strategies to cope with the increase in piracy. Let’s take the music industry for example. They adapted to the new methods of doing business on the Internet (thanks to Apple Inc.), and thus music piracy is almost dead.
Thus, I believe that protecting Intellectual Property is important, but this act is not the best way to do it. Businesses have to know that times have changed, and their old method of controlling everything is not working anymore. Thus, the best way is to research and evolve their businesses to suit the future.