SOPA: a train-wreck of idiocy

January 10th, 2012

If you have even a passing interest in free speech or the future of the internet, you’ve probably been following developments to H.R. 3261, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, for the past couple months. The ironically-named bill seeks to massively expand the power of U.S. law enforcement and private corporations in fighting online copyright infringement. The proposed legislation is currently before the House Judiciary Committee, where they’re scheduled to continue debating its merits this month.

The future of the internet?

The future of the internet in America?

Regardless of your stance on piracy, copyright, intellectual property rights, etc — SOPA is completely idiotic. Here’s why:

SOPA will do absolutely nothing to combat piracy

Let’s start with the fact that SOPA’s method of fighting piracy is to force internet service providers (ISPs) to block DNS resolution for sites that are accused of copyright infringement. This will be about as effective as locking your car door but leaving the window open.

What does “DNS resolution” mean, for non-techies? In a nutshell, DNS is what allows us to associate an easy-to-remember name with a website’s IP address on the internet (the IP address is what our computer really needs).

For example, Google’s IP address is, but you’d probably have a difficult time remembering all those numbers. So instead, you type “” into your browser’s address bar, which sends a request to your ISP, who in turn looks up the DNS record for Google and then sends the IP address for that record back to your computer. This allows you arrive at without having to know the actual address yourself.

This short (and hilarious) video explains DNS in more detail, if you’re still fuzzy on it:

SOPA seeks to break this process for websites that end up on government block lists — ISPs would likely be forced to respond to DNS requests for censored websites with the IP address of a government site explaining that the site you’re actually looking for has been blocked.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably already realized the flaw with this method: blocking DNS requests doesn’t actually remove the censored websites from the internet. SOPA’s method is akin to ripping the blocked site’s phone number out of a phone book — it’ll be more difficult to track down, but it’s still there. If you already know the IP address of a website that has been blocked in this manner, you can simply type that address into your browser, and you’ll arrive there like you always have.

More likely, you’ll need some help finding the IP addresses of blocked sites, which means you’ll need to turn to external DNS lookup resources. There are quite a few of these on the internet already, and my guess is that they’ll become quite a bit more popular if SOPA passes. To see an example of how they work, simply click this link and type “” into the box. You’ll see Google’s IP address displayed, which you can copy and paste directly into your browser. You can even permanently point your computer at an offshore DNS server (one that isn’t bound by U.S. laws), thus bypassing your own ISP’s DNS service — saavy users know this already, and the knowledge would likely become commonplace if SOPA is enacted.

You might still believe that SOPA will put a serious dent in piracy. After all, the majority of pirates probably won’t be able to figure this stuff out, right? The reality is that there is already significant evidence that pirates are able to easily circumvent government DNS blocks.

SOPA is an obvious affront to online free speech

If SOPA is enacted, the U.S. will join the ranks of countries such as China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, where the government has the power to censor the web at will. Worse, censorship powers will indirectly be granted to copyright holders, who will only need to make an accusation that a website is infringing on their intellectual property to have the site taken down. The burden of proof to get websites restored after a SOPA block will be on site operators — after the fact, and potentially after suffering a serious negative impact to their business.

Let that sink in: the mere suspicion of copyright infringement is enough to have websites taken down if SOPA is enacted. No trials. No notifications. I’m sure it won’t be abused though, right?

With the broad and vague way in which SOPA is worded, websites will not even be protected from copyright violations in user-submitted content, as they generally are today. Which means that a single complaint of infringement in user-uploaded material will technically be enough to have major websites blocked. Sites such as YouTube, Flickr, and Etsy are all in serious trouble if SOPA passes.

Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe argues that SOPA violates the First Amendment. Duh.

SOPA breaks internet security

Ironically, SOPA will likely increase online crime if it is enacted, since it breaks the secure form of DNS (DNSSEC), which is one of the only protections that online users have against certain types of malicious internet attacks.

The discussion around SOPA’s incompatibility with DNSSEC is really beyond the scope of this post, but trust that it is a Bad Thing™ for the future of the internet. You can read more about it here, although the article is a bit technical by necessity. You can bet that Congress doesn’t grasp this issue, which brings us to…

SOPA is being decided on by people that don’t understand it

One of the most offensive facets of the whole SOPA circus is that the people deciding the outcome do not have even a basic understanding of how the internet works. More importantly, they do not want to understand, nor do they believe it necessary to consult with people that do. Some members of Congress still wear their complete cluelessness of technology like it is some sort of badge of honor.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you can catch the entire Dec 15-16 House Judiciary Committee SOPA Markup on YouTube. Some highlights:

  • When the DNSSEC issue was raised, Rep. Mel Watt seemed proud of the fact that he didn’t understand it. He simply stated “I’m not a nerd” with a smile on his face, before summarily dismissing the very evidence that he just admitted he didn’t comprehend. He then went on to downplay the need for a panel of experts, repeatedly insisting that they were all wrong anyway. Yup, the guy that claimed ignorance on technology doesn’t need to consult with technical experts. He’s just fine with guessing.
  • Also regarding the DNSSEC concerns, Rep. Maxine Waters stated that any discussion of security was “wasting time” and that the bill should simply move forward without question. Yup, push it through now and damn the consequences!
  • Rep. Steve King tweeted the following early on: “We are debating the Stop Online Piracy Act and Shiela Jackson has so bored me that I’m killing time by surfing the Internet” (hello, irony). Rep Jackson later found out about the tweet and stated that she was “offended”, at which point an argument broke out over whether or not she could use the word “offended”. Jackson was eventually forced to change her statement for the record. Yes, this really happened.
  • When it was pointed out that nearly 100 independent internet engineers openly spoken out against SOPA and the potential problems it might cause, Rep. Bob Goodlatte responded by bringing up the views of a couple of (entertainment industry paid) policy analysts. His argument seemed to basically boil down to “we can both find people that support our viewpoints, so their opinions cancel each other out”. Or something equally silly.

Watching the video, it’s quite clear that many of the supporters are perfectly fine with passing SOPA despite the fact that they can’t explain it. You can’t help but get the impression that quite a few of these people are just in a rush to pass something, regardless of the potential consequences. It’s frightening and sad at the same time.

SOPA isn’t some noble piece of legislation designed to protect rights-holders against online piracy. It’s an obvious pandering to Hollywood lobbyists and a serious threat to free speech and the future of the internet. It’s idiotic.

Want to do something about SOPA? Visit for ways you can help.

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