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December 2011

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SOPA Law Threatens eCommerce (and Basic Freedoms)

by Glen Emerson Morris
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With public confidence in the US government, and the corporations that sponsor it, at an all time low, this was probably not the best time for Congress to try to pass a draconian law that would largely be a blank check for large US corporations to muzzle freedom of speech on the Internet worldwide. Still, there was no reason to think the usual approach wouldn't work. Testimony at the Stop Online Piracy Act's hearing on Nov. 16, 2011, was stacked in favor of the bill. Only one person was allowed to testify against the bill, while five people testified for it. In addition, the industries sponsoring the bill, the motion picture and music industries, have donated generously to many Congress members of of both parties for decades.

Unfortunately for SOPA supporters, the major opponents of the bill, FaceBook, Yahoo, Tweeter, Google, etc. were able to collectively notify a hundred million voters who promptly notified congress with online petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of voters. By Thursday a number of politicians, including House minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, had gone on record as against the bill. Some even predicted SOPA was dead, and had absolutely no chance of passage.

It would be nice to think the crisis was over, but that would be wishful thinking. SOPA's fate is yet to be determined, and we can bet that similar bills will appear in the future (as the 'Protect IP Act' [PIPA] already has). We need to be ready to stop them. Laws like SOPA and the PIPA are as much of a threat to SMB e-commerce as they are to civil liberties.

The current situation is basically that a few industries (Hollywood and the record industry) are willing to substantially kill freedom of speech because it doesn't fit their business model. This is particularly ironic when you consider that Hollywood uses some of the most creatively dishonest accounting techniques of any industry. (The Disney studio was recently found guilty of using the usual Hollywood creative accounting to avoid paying $270 million in royalties.)

Like a bad Hollywood production, the SOPA bill is both technically inept and heavy handed. Make that “extremely” heavy handed. SOPA only has four primary sanctions; jail, fines up to $15 million per offense, loss of internet access (domain blockage), and loss of funds transfer (like PayPal). It's very vague on exactly what constitutes an offense. It's even vaguer on what, if any, due process is accorded the accused copyright violators, no matter where they live.

SOPA would provide the US government the ability to shut down any domain in the world it deems guilty of violating copyright law, even for Websites that have been found to be operating legally under the laws of their own country. Not surprisingly the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning that part of the law. They were not the only ones to condemn SOPA.

We found these comments about SOPA online.

The language of SOPA is so broad, the rules so unconnected to the reality of Internet technology and the penalties so disconnected from the alleged crimes that this bill could effectively kill e-commerce or even normal Internet use. The bill also has grave implications for existing U.S., foreign and international laws and is sure to spend decades in court challenges," said a news analysis in the information technology magazine eWeek.

Although the bill's language says otherwise, its requirements would overturn the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's (DCMA) process requiring copyright owners to submit notices of infringement to websites and ask for the infringing material to be taken down, legal observers say. "If any website sets itself up in a way that does not actively log or monitor user behavior, a rights holder can always allege that the site is "avoiding confirming" the use of the site for infringement. That rights holder allegation is sufficient to put the website at major risk of losing access to payment and ad networks," said CDT lawyer David Sohn.

With a court order, US Attorney-General could force US-based ad networks such as Google and payment processors such as Paypal or Visa to stop doing business with sites found to infringe on copyright and take "technically feasible and reasonable measures" to cut them off. He could also bar search engines from displaying links to the sites. Operators of Domain Name System(DNS) servers could be ordered to remove the sites' listing and return an empty response for them. This would leave them accessible by their IP address and compromise DNSSEC, the protocol for name server integrity.

Third parties such as copyright holders would for the first time also be able to request a court order by making statement of good-faith belief under section 103 that the material infringes a copyright. The court order would require online advertising networks and payment processors such as PayPal and MasterCard to stop doing business with the website within five days unless the website owner files a counter-notification. The bill makes the ad and payment networks immune from liability for any losses this action might cause the website owner.

The bill would also make unauthorized streaming of copyprotected content a felony, even if accidental and not for profit.

Ten years ago in my column “Fallout from the Tobacco Wars,” I wrote that Internet technology had made the kind of business model the tobacco industry was based on obsolete. The lie that “cigarettes don't cause cancer” was no longer credible given the information freely available on the Internet.

We've reached a similar point with campaign financing. The lie that corporate campaign donations don't corrupt the political process is simply no longer credible. The fact that any politician in Washington would be willing to compromise American freedom of speech at the request of such a dishonest and minor part of the economy is a sad testament to how corrupt our political system has become. If passed, SOPA could corrupt our free market economy even further.

SOPA would provide an easy way for any large company to shut down any consumer run Website that posted negative reviews of the company's products under pretext of copyright violations. The SOPA act was endorsed by Pfizer, whose racketeering conviction was covered in earlier articles in this magazine. In the last decade Pfizer was able to use sheer intimidation to shut down a number of consumer Websites that posted user reports of bad experiences with Pfizer drugs, later proved to be fraudulently marketed by Pfizer for those conditions. Only a few Websites were able call Pfizer's bluff and stay online. The SOPA law would allow Pfizer to shut down even those sites.

Without doubt, SOPA is not a law in the American public's interest. Let your representatives know it, and soon. We're only going to have a free Internet, and free speech, in this country as long as we're willing to risk using them, and the clock is rapidly running out.

Glen Emerson Morris was a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright 1994 - 2011 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved ' keywords: Internet advertising, Internet marketing, business, advertising, Internet, marketing. For more advertising and marketing help, news, resources and information visit our Home Page.

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