SOPA, Freedom, And The Invisible War

While laughable in scope and reach (not to mention ridiculous in terms of potential enforcement) the Stop Online Piracy Act is seen as a very real threat to our freedom to, in short, surf the Internet. Although its ramifications are far more draconian than I’m letting on here, I posit that the government is the least of our concern when it comes to online freedom. Let’s catch up since our last few articles on the topic.

Since the GoDaddy kerfuffle, SOPA has gained traction as the hacker cause du jour. Designed to help copyright holders protect their property (something any casual observer can support), the bill, would allow the US government to essentially “turn off” part of the Internet that it doesn’t like. Most of these sites would be “rogue” or, more precisely, out of US jurisdiction. From the Bill:

A service provider shall take technically feasible and reasonable measures designed to prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States to the foreign infringing site (or portion thereof) that is subject to the order…Such actions shall be taken as expeditiously as possible, but in any case within five days after being served with a copy of the order, or within such time as the court may order.

The money shot is, obviously, that these are “technically feasible and reasonable measures designed to prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States to the foreign infringing site.” The suggestion that the US government can take “reasonable measures” to “prevent access” is patently absurd. Short of a “reasonable” nuclear strike on the rogue server farm, circumvention of these measures will be, at best, an inconvenience.

It is abundantly clear that this bill is a direct reaction to the Wikileaks case as well as a play by the media companies to survive past the next decade. It is despicable effort wrapped in the flags of freedom and fraud protection that, with its “You Dunn Goofed”-style “backtracing,” is as impossible to enforce as it will be to implement.

Cory Doctorow, for all his stridency, puts it quite succinctly:

The problem is twofold: first, there is no known general-purpose computer that can execute all the programs we can think of except the naughty ones; second, general-purpose computers have replaced every other device in our world. … Consequently anything you do to “secure” anything with a computer in it ends up undermining the capabilities and security of every other corner of modern human society.

To activists, SOPA now has a cousin. The NDAA is seen in the same philosophical light as SOPA. I worry that whereas SOPA binds the mind, the NDAA binds the body – a much more corrosive concept. As long as our fingers are free, there will exist a dark net that no government can touch. If we are in real, literal chains, that option is considerably curtailed. To conflate these two is incorrect and simplifies both issues to the point of farce.

In the end, SOPA probably won’t pass. It is unenforceable and unpopular and, more important, it could be used by enemies of a particular company to force virtual embargoes – something no lobbyist wants. If it does pass, however, what will happen? Like the DMCA, it will be a toothless bill that has little bearing on our lives. The first international lawsuit against the US Government for censoring one thing or the other will blunt its teeth and new technologies will break them. SOPA, is at best, the sort of hand-waving that so many series-of-tubes Congressmen have performed in the past: a curt nod to forces that none in government can control.

What worries me more is our own tendency to sell our rights to businesses through various forms of EULA acceptance, lock in, and trust. “[Google|Apple|Microsoft|EA|*] has my best interests at heart,” is a lie so dangerous that it makes SOPA look like a request to silence your cellphones in the movie theatre. It’s this corrosive mentality – that the government is out to get us while Google wants to “help” us by releasing “open” software and that the walled garden of iOS is a boon to humanity and not a shackle – that will do us in sooner than any bill.

Commendably Google and a number of other parties have come out against SOPA. However, Google in particular is one of the biggest beneficiaries of an open Internet. To say they are mercenary on this point is mean-hearted and arguably wrong, but a free and open Internet helps spread Google juice around the world.

Government can, if cornered, interact with enemies on a physical level. Bradley Manning is in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, facing life imprisonment for essentially doing what anyone with a USB key and a grudge could do with proper security clearance. Rupert Murdoch’s big crime was performing a “phone hacking” maneuver that you learn in Script Kiddie 101. Meanwhile, groups like LOLSEC LulzSec and Anonymous have run circles around multiple targets across the globe. SOPA is a straw man. We can keep our freedom on the Internet. However, as we give big businesses more of our time, attention, and personal information, we build a cage of our own making, no SOPA required.

[Image via Wikipedia]