Wednesday, January 18, 2012

ZenTiger Please look at this broken link

Here's a link to the details of SOPA which threatens internet freedom: Stop Online Piracy Act

Only problem is, the link may not be working for the next 24 hours as Wiki threaten to go dark in protest against the proposed legislation. Apparently, the legislators are backing off and Obama is backing the winds of change - and doesn't support the legislation, at least in its current form.

Text of the SOPA Bill

Among other things, the bill grants immunity from prosecution to all of the companies and organisations that jump on the bandwagon and help to shut down a "suspect" site. The implication then being they face prosecution if they don't take any action.

There are many sites discussing the negative side of SOPA, so I just want to make one point about legislation such as this. That point is that this type of legislation places the onus (costs and risks) on businesses to enforce government mandates, or they themselves be punished. This has been happening for a long time, especially with tax collection. Businesses are required to collect taxes for the government through GST, which is different to actually paying a tax based on a share of the profits. They are required to extract taxes from employees, rather than have the employee respond to the government's demand on their income.

Another obvious area is border control. Data collection requirements and security costs in this area increasingly fall to the corporations running airports, and the airlines bringing in the passengers. The cost of returning illegal passengers fall onto the shoulders of the airlines. This article from 2008 provides an example of my point:
Airlines operating to and from the UK will soon be tasked with collecting comprehensive data from every passenger entering or leaving the country under a new government programme called e-Borders, which is expected to cost carriers £450 million ($669.2 million) in the first 10 years.
SOPA goes as far as requiring search engine companies, such as Google, to remove links to suspect sites:

(B) INTERNET SEARCH ENGINES- A provider of an Internet search engine shall take technically feasible and reasonable measures, as expeditiously as possible, but in any case within 5 days after being served with a copy of the order, or within such time as the court may order, designed to prevent the foreign infringing site that is subject to the order, or a portion of such site specified in the order, from being served as a direct hypertext link.
Again, the cost of enforcing the law is placed on businesses, with the way open to make them pay a fine for not doing the government's dirty work. It's an interesting concept, and one that will certainly change the behaviour of businesses (for the worse) if it becomes more common. It's like moving from requiring seat belts in cars, to fining Toyota if they allow a drunk driver to get behind the wheel of a Toyota. But what is more sinister is that rather than bind up the rights and obligations of an internet user in a "terms of use" clause, or requiring definite proof of illegal activity, it's a move to allow anyone to report a suspect drunk driver of a Toyota to the Toyota head office, and they push a button to turn off the car, and then wait for the owner to walk into town to register a complaint that it was uncalled for.

Clearly, there needs to be a fair and reasonable way of protecting copyright and intellectual property, and balance that with "fair use" policies. My understanding is that SOPA doesn't strike that balance, and relies on setting up the internet to be easily controlled, so that the same techniques that protect copyright could be too easily adapted to censor free speech. Such changes then require much public discussion. What also needs discussion is how far the government can go requiring businesses to effectively become a law enforcement agency for big government.

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