Tomorrow, from 8 AM to 8 PM EST, Making Light will go dark as an expression of our opposition to SOPA and PIPA, the bills making their way through Congress which, if passed, would create an American apparatus of censorship, liability, and prior restraint in which Making Light will, quite simply, be unable to continue to exist.
By “going dark,” we mean that all links to content on nielsenhayden.com will return a 503 error message explaining why we’re doing this, and linking to sources and tools pertinent to the fight against these bills. It will not be possible to read or post comments to any part of our normal site. In doing this, we are joining a long list of sites that will be similarly powering down tomorrow, including Wikipedia (which will go offline for a full 24 hours beginning at midnight EST tonight), Reddit, Boing Boing, Tucows, and many others. A substantial list can be found at sopastrike.com. Another site involved in coordinating this action is americancensorship.org.
Make no mistake: These bills are an existential threat to this site and to the entire internet, whether or not you live in the United States. Although opponents of this legislation have won some significant skirmishes in the last few days, the bills as presently constituted are still catastrophically bad; the EFF has a very good roundup, posted just yesterday, of exactly how.
On Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow explains just what these bills would do to that site. We would be affected in exactly the same ways. Quoting Cory:
[I]n order to link to a URL on LiveJournal or WordPress or Twitter or Blogspot, we’d have to first confirm that no one had ever made an infringing link, anywhere on that site. Making one link would require checking millions (even tens of millions) of pages, just to be sure that we weren’t in some way impinging on the ability of five Hollywood studios, four multinational record labels, and six global publishers to maximize their profits. […] If we failed to take this precaution, our finances could be frozen, our ad broker forced to pull ads from our site, and depending on which version of the bill goes to the vote, [and] our domains confiscated.”Cory further notes that since Boing Boing’s servers are physically in Canada, once they were shown to have linked to a site that itself linked to an “infringing site,” their IP address would be added to a US-wide blacklist that every ISP in the United States would be required to maintain. So relocating Making Light’s server to someplace outside the US would do us no good.
A critical fact about these bills is that they completely replace the existing rules for dealing with genuine copyright infringement. There’s a lot to dislike about the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but at least it provided a framework (albeit a widely-abused one) in which sites such as ours had some protection against being held liable for content posted by our users. If passed, SOPA and PIPA will change all that. We will be completely liable for ensuring that nothing posted to our comment threads infringes anyone’s copyright or links to a site on which someone, somewhere, infringes anyone’s copyright. In addition, under SOPA, the Justice Department would be mandated to target and punish any site, domestic or foreign, that provides technical information about ways to circumvent the bills’ censorship regimes. We would be required to continually monitor user-generated content, not just for copyright infringement, but for links to—or discussions of—anti-censorship browser add-ons, anonymization software, VPNs, TOR (The Onion Router), and many other tools used by activists to fight tyranny and injustice in China, Syria, Iran, and around the world. (Wonderfully, some of these tools owe their existence fully or in part to support and funding from organs of the United States government; The Onion Router, for instance, was originally sponsored by the US Naval Research Laboratory, and other such tools have been spread worldwide by the State Department.)
As the EFF has pointed out, a further aspect of SOPA and PIPA that hasn’t been discussed enough is the immunity it offers to US ISPs if they “overblock” users and sites that they suspect of infringing activity, based on the ISP’s own “good faith” and possession of “credible evidence.” This immunity will allow ISPs large and small to institute private censorship regimes, free of judicial oversight or due process, with little or no fear of being held liable themselves. Of course, we can count on the telephone companies and cable operators who supply internet connectivity to most Americans to handle this responsibility with sensitivity, judgement, and the unswerving commitment to free speech and fairness for which they are renowned.
By contrast, the DNS provisions of SOPA and PIPA have been much discussed, possibly because their mere mention has a tendency to cause anyone who understands the actual architecture of the global internet to jump out of their seat and run down the street screaming with their hair on fire. Under these bills, the Justice Department would be empowered, upon receipt of a court order and with no guarantee of a proper hearing for the affected sites, to inject changes into the DNS system in order to cause sites accused of “infringement” to disappear from the Internet as seen from the US. Leaving aside the insane level of injustice here, tantamount to burning down an entire apartment building because someone living there has unpaid traffic tickets, implementation of these DNS-poisoning provisions would fatally undermine DNSSEC, the longstanding global project to repair security flaws in DNS and improve its security overall. In recent days, the Obama Administration has urged Congress to remove the DNS provisions from both versions of this bill, and various online and offline news sources have reported that these parts of the bills are being set aside. Don’t be fooled, says Donny Shaw of Fight For the Future, parent organization of americancensorship.org:
All that the bills’ sponsors have said is that they are willing to study the issue before it gets implemented. Even if the DNS requirement was taken out of the bill, messing with DNS is still the only reasonable technical solution for ISPs to implement the bills’ provisions. Furthermore, without the DNS language, the bill would still target financial transaction providers, online ad services, and “information location tools” (defined so broadly that it includes all sites that allow users to post hyperlinks).Techdirt has more.
Finally, I want to note that Teresa and I feel a particularly urgent need to make our opposition to this legislation completely clear, because among its publicly-listed supporters is Macmillan US, the publishing conglomerate of which Tor Books is a part. Intentionally or not, in a very real sense our employer is trying to destroy our web site. As Cory Doctorow points out, the Hollywood studios and Big Six publishing companies are behaving in a manner precisely described by the legal term “depraved indifference.” Cory continues:
Big Content haven’t just declared war on Boing Boing and Reddit and the rest of the “fun” Internet: they’ve declared war on every person who uses the net to publicize police brutality, every oppressed person in the Arab Spring who used the net to organize protests and publicize the blood spilled by their oppressors, every abused kid who used the net to reveal her father as a brutalizer of children, every gay kid who used the net to discover that life is worth living despite the torment she’s experiencing, every grassroots political campaigner who uses the net to make her community a better place — as well as the scientists who collaborate online, the rescue workers who coordinate online, the makers who trade tips online, the people with rare diseases who support each other online, and the independent creators who use the Internet to earn their livings.It must be fought. Learn more. Get involved.
The contempt for human rights on display with SOPA and PIPA is more than foolish. Foolishness can be excused. It’s more than greed. Greed is only to be expected. It is evil, and it must be fought.
EDITED TO ADD: NY Tech Meetup plans a rally against SOPA and PIPA, tomorrow from 12:30 to 2 PM, at the New York City offices of Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, both of whom support PIPA and both of whom have, so far, refused to personally meet with opponents of the bills. This will take place at 780 Third Avenue, near 49th Street. NY Tech Meetup is a pretty substantial organization with a lot of reach, so this should be interesting.