Even Ashton Kutcher dislikes SOPA

The House Judiciary Committee has tabled the Stop Online Piracy Act until “early next year,” but the fight to stop SOPA isn’t yet over. Fortunately, advocates for informed Internet policy have recently gained a couple crucial allies in that fight.

Yesterday, for example, Hollywood star Ashton Kutcher posted an indictment of SOPA on his blog. That’s actually highly significant because Hollywood (not surprisingly, given that movies are an oft-pirated product) has provided a lot of the firepower for SOPA. The Motion Picture Association of America, for example, has lobbied for the bill. But Kutcher recognizes what MPAA officials apparently don’t: SOPA creates more problems than it solves. Kutcher writes:

At its core SOPA unwillingly recruits Internet industry companies like social networks, ISP’s and search engines to become policing agents and legally liable for it’s users content. Forcing social media sites and ISP’s responsible for users content is amazingly burdensome and costly. SOPA will create economic problems for Internet start-ups which will be an additional negative side effect. This may cause a slow down in the Internet economic sector, which is providing real jobs and innovation for the US economy. …

Moreover, what is most shocking, is SOPA’s idea of giving judges determination of Internet DNS. The bill suggests DNS administrators remove bad actor domains on judges orders; thus breaking the fundamentals of the Internet. It is a disastrous precedent to have Congress legislate Internet DNS control.

Placing search engines and ISP’s in the middle of policing for piracy is plain and simply a bad and confused attempt by well meaning people that fundamentally don’t understand how the the Internet works.

That’s a point that has been raised again and again: SOPA seems to have been written and promoted by folks who don’t fully understand the Internet. (That’s not a cheap shot; plenty of people don’t, even folks who use it unthinkingly every day.) For example, Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz — who was born in Silicon Valley — has pleaded with the House Judiciary Committee to “bring in the nerds” to speak to the pros and cons of SOPA. That, he says, is the only responsible alternative to continuing to listen blindly and one-sidedly to special-interest groups like Hollywood. “We haven’t done our due diligence,” Chaffetz said.

Meantime, in the think tank world, The Heritage Foundation also took a stand against SOPA. That, too, is no small matter, given the odd lines that divide the pro-and-anti-SOPA factions. The business community, for example, has been very divided about the issue. In a WebMemo yesterday, James Gattuso, a senior fellow in regulatory policy, cautioned legislators to consider “the unintended consequences” of SOPA. He explains:

A number of concerns have been raised. One is that, by blocking “resolution” of IP addresses by servers in the U.S., users (and their browsers) would instead use less secure servers elsewhere to continue accessing blocked sites. Some have also said such domain-name filtering could disrupt access to other, non-infringing domain names. There are also concerns that SOPA could interfere with deployment of a newly developed Internet security system known as “DNSSEC” (which is intended to ensure the successful “resolution” of IP addresses), further weakening security.

SOPA would undercut other policy goals as well. The requirement that search engines omit links to rogue sites undercuts the role of search firms as trusted intermediaries in conveying information to users. There are, of course, other circumstances where search engines already omit information and links—for instance, Google routinely screens out child pornography from its search results. But there has never been a government mandate that information be withheld from search results. Imposing such a mandate would represent the first step down a classic slippery slope of government interference that has no clear stopping point.

Arguably, the limits placed on search engines as well as other third parties under SOPA would also violate constitutional protections of freedom of speech. But even if not barred legally, any such restrictions should be imposed only after the most careful consideration, only when absolutely necessary, and even then, to the smallest degree possible.

Bottom line: Everybody agrees piracy is a problem — but SOPA is not the way to stop it. Rest easy over the holidays knowing Congress didn’t inadvertently create a major Internet firewall, but keep your eyes on this when the House Judiciary Committee resumes its discussion next year.