Learning about SOPA (and PIPA): A multimedia approach


I’ve been saying for a couple weeks that I’d make a nice, comprehensive post about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act (PIPA). The great thing about being a procrastinator about writing about popular topics is that by the time you get around to it, others have done it as well or better, and you can just create a “best of” compilation. So that’s kind of what I’m doing. Plenty of companies, organizations, and blogs have dedicated today to protesting these bills in various ways. Many, like Wikipedia, Reddit, Craigslist, WordPress, and others have “blacked out” some or all of their content. Others, like the Daily WTF and Fark have taken a different approach by staging a “white out” in “support” of SOPA and PIPA. (Irony alert: they don’t really support the bills.)

Most of these sites have some pretty awesome and thorough information about the bills and why they’re bad for the internet. All of them encourage you to contact your congresscritters, and most provide you with a fairly easy way of doing so. One of the best is Americancensorship.org’s call connector that will automatically connect you to the right people after you fill in your information. If you’re bad at phones for some reason, their main page has an email form instead, as well as a variety of other ways to take action.

I suppose I still haven’t gotten to the part where I really explain why you should even bother with any of this. SOPA and PIPA are both meant to combat piracy and the sale of counterfeit goods online. Few people will argue that this goal is a bad one. It’s the way that the bills try to do it that’s really the problem. The way that both bills propose curtailing piracy and counterfeiting would do very little to actually stop pirates and counterfeiters and would likely result in a broken, insecure internet instead. The video at the top of this post explains the details in a really easy-to-understand kind of way, with fun animations. If you can’t watch it on your device (or because you’re at work or for some other reason), keep reading for a few more presentations. After all, I did say this was a multimedia approach.

An exercise in LOLcats and piracy

Still here? Awesome. Have an adorable kitten. Did you know that, if SOPA or PIPA is passed, LOLcats might be considered a form of content piracy? Somebody owns those pictures, and odds are, it’s not I Can Haz Cheezburger or the person who submitted it to them. While most people are not going to get too upset if their cat pictures get captioned and don’t really have the resources to sue or force a takedown, all it would take is one cat picture owned by a powerful content owner like the MPAA (think of all of those pictures of Puss in Boots from Shrek that have been captioned) to cause the entire site to seemingly disappear from the internet.

Note I said seemingly. The mechanism by which SOPA and PIPA would block sites would be by getting ISPs (the companies that sell you internet service) to block or remove the site’s DNS entries. What’s a DNS, you ask? DNS stands for “Dynamic Naming Service,” which I suppose still doesn’t tell you much about what it does. When you type in a web address (like cheezburger.com) into your browser, that name points to a number known as an IP address . (IP stands for “internet protocol,” which also isn’t very descriptive to most people of what it is or what it does.)

It’s kind of the same idea as looking up a person’s name in the phone book to get their phone number so you can call them.  DNS is like the internet’s phone book, with the web address being the name and the IP address being the phone number. But as you might imagine, just because someone isn’t in the phone book doesn’t mean that you can’t call them. For that matter, just because you don’t have a phone book doesn’t mean you can’t find out someone’s phone number. In that same way, just because your ISP has taken cheezburger.com or wikipedia.org out or any web address out of its DNS “phone book” doesn’t mean that the website you’re trying to get to doesn’t still have an IP address. So if you’re a LOLcat pirate and you really still want to see and share LOLcats, all you would have to do is type in Cheezburger’s IP address. You can even try it right now. (This is the interactive portion of this multimedia presentation.) Go ahead and type into your address bar (or copy/paste it) and hit enter. It’ll take you to cheezburger.com’s main page. This is all any pirate (or savvy internet user) would have to do to get around SOPA/PIPA’s DNS blocks. It’s a minor inconvenience to find out the IP address, but otherwise, it’s a pretty low barrier.

But wait, there’s more!

You may have noticed the very long, unreadably small infographic stretching down the right side of this post. It’s actually really huge. Go ahead and click on it to read it at full size. It presents more or less the same information as the video I showed you up top, but in a different way. You can’t say I’m not attempting to cater to all types of learning styles here.

If you’re really up on things, you may have noticed that the infographic is already a little out of date. Thanks to strong pressure from internet activists, several of the bills’ co-sponsors have withdrawn their support. Likewise, SOPA has been doing a bit of a political Hokey-Pokey in the House (you put your bad bill in, you take your bad bill out, you put your bad bill in and you shake it all about…) with several loud announcements of it being “shelved” or “tabled” followed almost immediately by a much quieter announcement that the House will consider it or work on it at a later date (presumably when we’re not paying attention anymore). The most recent announcement of shelving came earlier this week, after the White House said in a statement that the president would veto any bill that would harm freedom of speech on the internet. But then a couple hours later, bill sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith, quietly stated that SOPA may be revisited as soon as next month.

You may also have noticed that the other countries that use DNS blocking include China and Iran. The U.S. has spoken harshly in the past about internet censorship by these governments, and yet we have lawmakers who want to give that power to the same people who thought Transformers 3 and seven Saw movies were good ideas and initially thought Star Wars would be a flop. Right.

But even if you hate kittens and actually really love movies like Mediocre Movie 5: We Keep Making These Because People Keep Giving Us Money, it’s got to upset you a little that regardless of who gets the DNS-blocking censorship powers, the United States is abandoning its own principles and putting us in the same category as some of the world’s most oppressive and repressive regimes in order to protect private industries that are doing just fine despite any piracy.

And finally…

I’ve really barely scratched the surface here. Probably one of the most complete treatments of the issue I’ve seen is over at the Reddit Blog. If the video, graphic, links, and commentary I’ve provided here have left you with any questions, that post will probably answer them. Ars Technica, instead of blacking out, is spending the whole day posting new analyses, information and viewpoints about SOPA and PIPA, probably going even further and more in-depth than even the monstrous post on the Reddit Blog.

So go read! Go call or email your congresscritter! All the tools are linked here; you have no excuse now other than apathy and laziness.


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