Call it – the Internet strikes back.
Anti-piracy legislation that critics argue would not only violate First Amendment free-speech rights, but could even “break the Internet” by messing up its internal addressing system if it became law, has been bounced back for a rewrite.
Powerful supporters, including lawmakers, the movie and music industries, and the US Chamber of Commerce had anticipated a huge victory as their legislation to combat online piracy swept to passage in Congress this month.
Instead, they are now scrambling in backrooms around Capitol Hill working to overhaul major portions of the legislation to mollify critics. The House version – the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) – appears to be temporarily shelved, while backers of the Senate’s PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) say it could be revisited this month.
But the legislation’s opponents don't seem to be letting up on getting their message out. A wave of protest has been building for months, but Wednesday backers of several popular web sites were visibly dramatizing the "censorship" they say SOPA and PIPA would cause.
On Wikipedia, users see a brief flash of the entry they were seeking – then a black screen descends, obscuring the site. Social site Reddit is closed, too, offering instead a breakdown of arguments in opposition to the bills. Mozilla, too, is redirecting its web pages to an "action page" and Google's search homepage is blacking out the Google logo.
Still other sites like Twitter, whose backers also oppose the legislation, said their services would not stop because it would harm businesses that use the service.
Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, argued in a Sunday debate on MSNBC that the proposed bills were overreaching and “the equivalent of being angry and trying to take action against Ford just because a Mustang was used in a bank robbery.”
Also over the weekend, White House advisers implied in blog posts that a veto could be in order for any such legislation. "While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet."
Meanwhile, attention has begun to shift to alternative legislation whose proponents say avoids both free-speech and technical pitfalls in the attempt to block use of international "rogue websites" that permit pirated movies, music and software to be downloaded.
The shift was a big boost for Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, who for months was nearly alone in leading opposition to PIPA. Now he’s surrounded by voices supporting his competing legislation, which proposes designating the International Trade Commission to conduct investigations that result in a ban on processing transactions for rogue sites rather than technical blocks on the Internet’s address system.
Under the now besieged PIPA and SOPA bills, search engines would have had to disable links to foreign sites infringing on US intellectual property law; advertising services would be chopped, and so would provisions that cut off payment processing.
“There’s no question that people who sell fake Rolexes or tainted Viagra or movies they don’t own are bad actors,” Senator Wyden told the Washington Post Tuesday. “But ... to solve this problem by doing damage to the Internet, which has been a juggernaut for job growth and innovation and free speech, is a mistake. So that was our argument: There’s a problem, there’s a remedy, but you don’t need a cluster bomb to solve it.”
Proponents of the Senate legislation say opposition has mischaracterized it – even as they back away from technical solutions that cybersecurity experts had opposed.
“Much of what has been claimed about the Senate’s PROTECT IP Act is flatly wrong and seems intended more to stoke fear and concern than to shed light or foster workable solutions,” wrote Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vt. in a statement Tuesday. "The PROTECT IP Act will not affect Wikipedia, will not affect Reddit, and will not affect any website that has any legitimate use.”
It would instead, he argued, deal effectively with "foreign rogue website(s)" that the bill has "clearly defined as one that has no real purpose other than infringement. Theft and fraud on this scale undermines consumer trust in online transactions.”
But Internet security experts said the legislation – as originally conceived – could indeed have harmed security by undermining the Internet's core address system.
Stewart Baker, a cybersecurity expert who has served in senior posts at the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency says he fears the bills, until quite recent backpedaling, could have badly undermined internet security.
The Internet, he explains, has a “phone book” – it's Domain Name System (or Service, called DNS) that automatically translates domain names into IP addresses. It's easy to remember Google.com – less easy to remember 220.127.116.11 – Google.com's Internet or IP address, where its website lives on the Internet.
What the legislation originally called for was giving the US attorney general the authority to order sites blocked – by rewriting the DNS. Technicians would have had to alter a straightforward system so it would in essence lie – telling an Internet user that an address such as Pirate Bay was not available when it really was. The result, Mr. Baker says, is that illegitimate workarounds – including using less reputable DNS systems in other countries – would pop up and put Internet users at great risk of unknowingly ending up on criminal scam websites.
In addition, critics said that the bill would put the US in the same category as Syria and China, whose authoritarian regimes impose a similar type of blocking – but for websites that contain information those governments don't like. Digital tools used by human rights activists and political dissidents around the world to evade government blacklists would also get hammered, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet rights advocacy group.
Under that kind of withering fire from all sides, Sen. Leahy and other backers have pulled back from the DNS provisions in the legislation. But even that hasn't completely mollified Baker and it's not clear how far the pullback will need to be.
“All of the progress made to date consists of proponents of PIPA suggesting that it can be changed, but we haven't seen any concrete proposals," he writes in an e-mail. "Given how quickly and quietly these provisions came within an inch of the floor on both sides of the Hill, the people who fear zombie versions of the bills rising from the dead are right to keep up the pressure.”
Others said the erosion would be more than technical, but undercut the freedoms that had made so many businesses thrive.
"Bottom line: This legislation would chill the free flow of expression of ideas on the Internet simply because it creates greater liability and exposure for websites and others," Fernando Pinguelo, an Internet lawyer at the New Jersey law firm Norris, McLaughlin & Marcus, writes in an e-mail interview. “While average users may not initially feel the pain, they certainly will in the long run as information exchange reduces due to the threat of exposure to lawsuits and related concerns.”
Still, there's no lack of wariness as the rewrites begin.
"I am a little worried," Mr. Baker says. "I want to be sure this legislation doesn't come back as a zombie bill shuffling through the halls of Congress. Until you actually see the proposed language, it's probably a bad idea to celebrate."