MEDIA ROOTS — With governments, citizens, and activists worldwide increasingly relying on the internet, the environment the internet fosters is a hotly contested issue. Last summer, the United Nations declared that disconnecting people from the internet was a human rights violation and against international law. Considering internet access as a human right and witnessing the vital contribution it has played in the Arab Spring and Occupy Movements, the sanctity of preserving a free and open internet, or net neutrality, can’t be understated. Even the U.S. military recently acknowledged the critical role of cyberspace by including the digital domain in its latest concept of “full spectrum dominance.”
As humanity’s relationship with the burgeoning information age matures, threats to a free and open internet continue to proliferate. Indeed, when the printed press, radio, TV, and every other technological innovation, which have promised to revolutionize public access to a diversity of information, were developed, they’ve faced consolidation, monopolization, and the resultant transferences of power and control into few hands. Now, potential predators stalk the digital realm; and they have been revealed as SOPA, PIPA and ACTA.
SOPA, PIPA and ACTA all generally share the same goals which are to ostensibly protect trademarks and intellectual property, while fending off counterfeiting and pirating. SOPA and PIPA are U.S. pieces of legislation, while ACTA is a transnational agreement. After recent public outcries, internet users defeated an attempt to pass SOPA and PIPA on Capitol Hill. However, SOPA will be resurrected soon. Meanwhile, countries around the world vigorously protest the enactment of ACTA. What’s the significance of these acronyms on our digital routines? Let’s break each one down individually and have a closer look.
PIPA: Protect IP Act – Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property
PIPA’s stated goal would have given the U.S. government and copyright holders additional capabilities to restrict access to websites involved in copyright infringement and the distribution of counterfeit goods. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) originally introduced Senate Bill 968 on May 12, 2011, but the motion to proceed with the legislation was withdrawn January 23, 2011.
The most controversial aspect of the bill would have enabled Domain Name System (DNS) blocking and redirection. DNS serves as the virtual yellow pages of the internet. By blocking and redirecting DNS, this essentially tears entire pages out of the phone book, creating an incomplete version, no longer compatible with the rest of the world. In this scenario, a simple search for a site would yield a message stating the site no longer exists.
SOPA: Stop Online Piracy Act
SOPA (H.R. 3261) is the sister bill to PIPA in the House of Representatives. SOPA was introduced by U.S. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX). Its legal aim was to provide law enforcement agencies greater online jurisdiction to prevent violation of copyrighted intellectual property and the creation of counterfeit goods.
According to OpenCongress.org,
“This bill would establish a system for taking down websites that the Justice Department [DoJ] determines to be dedicated to copyright infringement. The DoJ or the copyright owner would be able to commence a legal action against any site they deem to have ‘only limited purpose or use other than infringement,’ and the DoJ would be allowed to demand that search engines, social networking sites and domain name services block access to the targeted site. It would also make unauthorized web streaming of copyrighted content a felony with a possible penalty up to five years in prison.”
The bill’s inherent dangers would have allowed the U.S. government and private companies to arbitrarily incapacitate websites, thus threatening freedom of speech. Furthermore, thousands of websites would have been jeopardized based on their user-generated content, which in turn, frequently relies on copyrighted material. Following the SOPA Blackout Day on January 18th, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) rescinded H.R. 3261’s vote on January 24, 2012.
This brief video offers a concise explanation of SOPA.
The battle for online freedom plows ahead, in light of a new bill originating in the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who chairs the Committee, is engineering the latest attempt to widely expand authority by Executive Branch departments over the internet. The debut of this new cybersecurity bill is expected today, February 16, 2012. Details of the cybersecurity bill have not been revealed, a result of the legislation’s crafters meeting behind closed doors. Theories abound that the bill, which has benefited from bipartisan support, would grant the Department of Homeland Security expansive new powers to regulate and stake out the internet under the pretext of cybersecurity. However, the persistent attempts to pass such legislation adversely impacting free speech and the flow of information must be questioned. Large amounts of financial contributions to politicians, as well as dubious connections, may indicate that a broader agenda is at work.
Supporters of SOPA and PIPA will likely vigorously lobby for the new cybersecurity bill to be passed. Backers of this type of legislation read like a who’s who list of Hollywood industry bosses. From the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) to the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), major Hollywood power brokers angle to protect their interests. A total of 161 entities have stumped for the passage of SOPA and PIPA. Besides the MPAA and RIAA, they include the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Comcast, Disney, and Sony. Based on some of the groups in favor, the entire matter appears to be a pet project of the Democrat Party. This comes as no surprise when considering who the vanguard of Hollywood intellectual property has historically been.
Chris Dodd has made it his mission to crusade in Washington D.C. on behalf of Hollywood under the pretext of copyright protection legislation. Dodd is the perfect bridge between Hollywood and the Beltway. On March 1, 2011, Dodd was chosen as chairman of the MPAA. On the side, he also lobbies for an organization called Creative America.
According to Creative America’s website:
“…everyone in the community recognizes what a grave threat content theft poses to our livelihood and creativity – that thieves are making millions of dollars trafficking in stolen film and television while our jobs, pensions and residuals continue to decline.”
Some of the groups involved with Creative America include the CBS Corporation, NBC Universal, the Screen Actors Guild, Twentieth Century Fox, Viacom, and Warner Bros. Entertainment. A simple search into Dodd’s previous career uncovers much cozier ties to D.C.
Dodd has enjoyed over three decades as a senator and has the distinction of being Connecticut’s longest serving senate member. He’s one of the most recognizable Democratic senators of years past, with posts on the Committee on Foreign Relations, the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, and the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. However, his post-political career has proven quite lucrative. According to sources, Dodd rakes in a $1.5 million salary as chairman of the MPAA. The appointment of Dodd to head the MPAA might be the biggest coup Hollywood has had in years.
Further evidence from Dodd himself reinforces this as he threatened to cut off financial contributions from Hollywood to politicians who did not support SOPA and PIPA. The pipeline of sizeable contributions from Hollywood going to politicians is a healthy one most on Capitol Hill would prefer to preserve.
Democrat Senator Harry Reid has also asserted himself a champion of SOPA and PIPA legislation. He has brought various versions of the bill to the Senate floor and may be bound to three and half million vested interests to pass the legislation; Reid was the beneficiary of $3.5 million from SOPA and PIPA advocates during the last campaign cycle. Although donations to Reid stand out by far, other elected officials supporting the legislation have received contributions, too: Democrat Chuck Schumer ($2.6 million), Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand ($2 million), Democrat Barbara Boxer ($1.4 million), and Republican Michael Bennet ($1 million). Clearly, millions of reasons jeopardize maintaining a free and open internet. One of those reasons is another piece of little known legislation, called ACTA.
ACTA: Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement
ACTA protests have flashed across Europe over recent weeks. Anti-ACTAvists have sprung up from the Netherlands to Germany to Poland and many other countries throughout Europe. The contentious nature of ACTA attempts to normalize an international legal framework that enforces intellectual property rights, but also endeavors to target counterfeit goods and even generic medications. On October 1st, 2011, Australia, Japan, Canada, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States signed the agreement. At the start of 2012, the European Union and 22 of its member states ratified ACTA, bringing the total signatories to 31.
Battle lines have been drawn and two organizations are standing toe to toe—the MPAA and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). According to the EFF, “[...] copyright industry rightsholder groups have sought stronger powers to enforce their intellectual property rights [...] to preserve their business models.” This sentiment essentially drives to the heart of the debate, one which also includes SOPA and PIPA. Those opposed to restricting the internet view these efforts as a veiled and desperate attempt at trying to preserve an atrophying business model, being rendered obsolete by the age of digital file sharing. This sentiment has galvanized many who sense that the true reason the public digital domain is under siege is in attempts to undermine free speech and democracy. Due to what’s at stake, emotions have run high. U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has called it “more dangerous than SOPA.” Popular opinion likely agrees with Issa, but is the truth harder to discern?
A lot of misinformation swirls around ACTA. The hacktivist group Anonymous shares some of the blame. A popular video produced by the amorphous, hacktivist collective shines light on ACTA’s pitfalls. But is the hit piece video accurate? According to ArsTechnica.com, there are four dubious claims that Anonymous makes: ISPs will monitor all your data packets, ACTA obliges its member countries to assent to the worst features of SOPA and PIPA, generic drugs will be banned and seeds will be controlled via patents, and ISPs will be constantly required to scour their servers for even the smallest bits of copyrighted material. The Anonymous video, which includes a qualifying disclaimer at the outset, has been widely embedded in articles online and reached nearly one million views. Anonymous noted, “This video may not reflect the recent changes within the ACTA text. However, it will give you an idea of what ACTA is about and why the internet should fight it.” And, of course, after sorting any conflicting claims, ACTA still deserves a thumbs-down verdict. We also bear in mind internet censorship, freedom of speech restrictions, loss of net neutrality, domestic surveillance, and civil rights erosions and police state repression have already been ongoing issues plaguing the U.S. ACTA would simply codify existing repressive policies for people in the U.S. under the pretext of opposing counterfeiting.
ACTA is a poorly crafted agreement and simply bad. ACTA’s basic criticisms are threefold: the agreement’s designers are not democratically elected nor accountable, the ACTA negotiations were held in secret, and there was no discussion held in a public forum. ReadWrite Enterprise does a fine job laying out ten reasons why ACTA fails. Furthermore, even though ACTA probably won’t change U.S. law, it would lock us into a constrictive legal space in an area of law that changes rapidly. Much like activists around the world can now respond more quickly to police brutality and government tactics of repression thanks to the internet, file sharing enthusiasts are finding new ways to circumvent internet censorship just as quickly.
The Internet Can’t Be Bound and Gagged
Already the hive mind of the internet has developed a solution to undercut potential censorship attempts. Many people are unaware the internet exists similarly to an iceberg; only a small portion of it is visible to the average user. A significant amount of the internet lies hidden in an area called the deep web. The deep web lies obfuscated to the armchair web surfer due to an inability to access it by simply typing it into a search engine and accessing it. For example, the deep web does not employ the use of meta tags or DNS and blocks search engines, among other characteristics, making navigation there challenging. In this secretive environment, hackers have been diligently working on a new protocol called Tribler.
Tribler works in a similar fashion to other BitTorrent clients except that when search results are produced, they aren’t procured from a central index, rather they are directly produced from other peers. According to TorrentFreak,
“Downloading a torrent is also totally decentralized. When a user clicks on one of the search results, the meta-data is pulled in from another peer and the download starts immediately. Tribler is based on the standard BitTorrent protocol and uses regular BitTorrent trackers to communicate with other peers. But, it can also continue downloading when a central tracker goes down.”
This type of decentralized structure would allow users to create ‘channels’ amongst themselves and make Tribler an indomitable force, making neutralization by censors extremely difficult. Tribler will make it “impossible to shut down unless the whole Internet goes down with it.” This will come as excellent news to millions of people witnessing attempts to stifle internet freedom with ACTA, SOPA, PIPA, and ongoing attacks on net neutrality.
The race to control the internet rages on, but developments like this beg the question: Does the internet adapt and evolve too quickly for elected officials to harness it? This brings to mind Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. Some things can just never be caught. However, U.S. voters continue to support the two-party system, which continually abandons them whilst representing corporate interests. Time will tell.
Written by Adam Miezio for Media Roots
Photo by Flickr user DonkeyHotey