SOPA Right, Internets Wrong

If you ever find yourself questioning the value of your home security investment, I suggest dipping your toes into an internet piracy/privacy debate.

A call for radical centrism. From 2011.

Online sale of counterfeit goods, mislabeled drugs, and unauthorized video streams got so bad even the United States Congress noticed. Of two competing bills, H.R. 3261, the “Stop Online Piracy Act” has the snappier acronym and gets all the attention:

  • Internet understudy Cory Doctorow loaded up the content cannon and fired off nearly two dozen anti-SOPA screeds from his ‘zine
  • 83 “Internet inventors” including such luminaries as “John Adams, operations engineer at Twitter, signing as a private citizen” wrote an open letter to Congress
  • Tumblr “censored” everyone’s dashboard to protest “corporate censorship”
  • Paul Graham uninvited SOPA-supporting companies from Y Combinator Demo Day. Now their $7,000 stipend includes rice, beans, and the politics of your boss!
  • Reddit’s GM declared “SOPA would make running Reddit near impossible” inspiring Reddit users to organize a… GoDaddy Boycott Day (?!)

If you think none of this makes any sense whatsoever, you’re right.

To better understand what’s going on, we need to look at similarly-controversial legislation from decades ago: 1998’s Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Like the current bills being debated, the DMCA extended existing common-sense laws online, dealt with shady attempts at countermeasures, and would surely destroy innovation on the Internet. Except that last part didn’t happen.

Why DMCA? Consider this photograph of David Karp and John Maloney of Tumblr:

John Maloney President of Tumblr

It’s a famous Star Wars shot owned by the highly-litigious LucasFilm overlaid with a copyrighted image of Tumblr’s founder. Possibly made using a pirated version of Photoshop. If you hover over the image you’ll see a borderline-defamatory comment. As a bonus, it results in Google displaying Yoda in response to queries for Tumblr President John Maloney.

It’s not hard to imagine why some people might like this image to disappear from the web. But a bunch of people are making money off this crap: server manufacturers, bandwidth providers, payment services, web advertising networks. And they want that image to stay up for as long as possible.

Despite what you hear, that’s the basis for the conflict. It has nothing to do with free speech. It’s not new, and it’s not even an Internet thing. Artists always have — and always will have — every ounce of free speech the money they’re not making can’t buy.

So rather than clog up the government with lawsuits, the DMCA offers a free-market option. In return for removing material upon request, companies like YouTube cannot be sued out of existence just because someone posts a video showing Snoopy licking his nuts while AC/DC plays “Big Balls.”

Instead: Charlie Brown complains and YouTube removes the video. It’s a bit of a stretch to call this censorship or a chilling cultural effect, though some people try. Back in reality, YouTube now mutes copyrighted music instead of removing a video entirely. With a few clicks, you can even replace the silence with legal music — choosing from a list of well-known and independent artists.

That’s precisely the kind of technology VCs should fund and innovators should create. Instead everyone’s bitching about SOPA without having read the bill.

Concerned that Wikipedia’s summary seemed unusually sane, yet unable to find another non-histrionic summary online, I slogged through 14,000 words and all referenced US Code sections. From the top:

Nothing in this Act shall be construed to impose a prior restraint on free speech or the press protected under the 1st Amendment to the Constitution.

The great thing about censorship is that it has so many meanings online! Sure, Tumblr said it but that doesn’t make it true. Avoid using “censorship” or “corporate censorship” (whatever Tumblr thinks that means) when discussing the bill.


In response to the DMCA and the PATRIOT Act, certain sites moved their servers out of the country. The attention whores at Boing Boing did it for publicity. But most did it because if they stayed in the US, they’d be shut down under existing law. Section 102 closes the loophole.

Here’s how it works: the US Attorney General files a request. After public review, a Judge rules the site illegal. Unfortunately the site is run, owned, and hosted in a country carefully chosen to be as inhospitable and non-responsive to US legal requests as possible. Now what?

Since we haven’t started bombing overseas datacenters yet, SOPA enables the use of technology measures. Simply put: Google can’t show a site in search results, PayPal can’t process payments to the site, and a web browser says “not found.”

The last part (DNS control) gets nerd attention due to “security concerns.” Nonsense. Domains get hijacked all the time at the registrar level. Browsers and ISPs redirect sites based on typos and paid placement.

If these sites were inside the US, the Feds could march in and seize the equipment. I prefer the DNS-based lockout. That way a legal site doesn’t disappear just because it lucked onto the same Rackspace server as some Russian genius hacking PayPal.


Section 103 extends a very limited subset of the previous powers to the general public. Notably, it applies only to sites “dedicated to theft of U.S. property” further defined as “primarily designed or operated for the purpose of copyright infringement (17 USC 501), circumventing copyright (17 USC 1201), or trademark infringement (18 USC 2320).”

The removal request only applies to advertising and payment providers. A site remains in search results and can be browsed normally during the dispute and afterward. So the burden becomes: can you convince PayPal and Google Ads that your site isn’t primarily and fundamentally designed to help people steal things? If you can’t, then you can’t make money off your site using PayPal and Google Ads.

Does a part of Tumblr’s value come from people sharing porn? Sure. Is it primarily designed for copyright infringement, to help people steal video games, or to sell knockoff Coach handbags? Nope. So get off your high horse Tumblr, this isn’t about you.

Ben Huh, CEO of ICanHazCheezburger, threatened to remove over 1,000 of his domains from GoDaddy. Love it!

Tumblr and Cheezburger — sites responsible for thousands of domains of cat pictures — join together to Save The Internet. Meanwhile neither site provides technology, tools or financial compensation to the artists, musicians and other creators who make the stuff their users remix and share.


This one started the uproar back in October and the internet got it wrong from the start. A Harvard professor claimed the bill makes it criminal for someone to lip sync to Justin Bieber. Aesthetically, perhaps. But not legally. Right there at the top:

IN GENERAL- Any person who willfully infringes a copyright shall be punished… if the infringement was committed… for private financial gain

I’m not a Harvard lawyer, but I’m also not a histrionic West Coast tech blogger. Does anyone really think we’re going to lock up ten year olds who share a Bieber video with their friends on Facebook?

A better example is the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Every pay-per-view event, TinyChat, and other sites fill up with people watching for free. Sometimes with ads on the side. Uncool, but that’s DMCA stuff — even then, the people watching aren’t the ones targeted. It’s the guy who takes the embed code, builds a PayPal site around the stream, and then sells it to people for a profit who needs to worry. And rightly so.

Also covered in Section 201: people who leak unreleased software, albums and movies. Having worked in each of those industries, I say right on! But again, the bill contains substantial and sane caveats. A movie must be screened publicly first (production leaks don’t count). Increased penalties for movies only apply if you upload (not watch) within 24 hours of the film’s official release. A similar clarification for beta software wouldn’t hurt but this is neither technologically-uninformed nor radical legislation.


This one restricts sale and counterfeiting of designer goods, counterfeit drugs, and US Military equipment. Frankly I’m surprised this wasn’t already written into law. A counterfeit drug is defined as one which falsely represents the source, manufacturer or distributor. So don’t worry, you can still order your overseas boner pills — they’re just less likely to say Viagra on them.

It’s embarrassing that venture capitalists — people who predict the future with a 6% success rate, re-investing money they made off companies made possible by the DMCA — are declaring SOPA to be the end of the Internet.

But it’s horrifying that people who mentor young entrepreneurs use SOPA as a litmus test to restrict the types of people their fledgling companies might come in contact with. Amazing technology will come from people who work together to solve creation and commerce — not those who avoid talking to one another during the debate over proposed legislation that benefits both sides.