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Protesting SOPA: There's An App (Actually Several) For That

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, January 13 2012

Tony Webster and Andy Baird have put up virtual protest signs in front of websites belonging to entities that support SOPA

When freelance web developer Tony Webster read about the Stop Online Piracy Act through the online news and link sharing sites Hacker News and Reddit, he felt an instinctive sense of outrage.

“The way the legislation is written, it would just completely undermine the way the internet works, simply in the name of copyright,” he says.

So he and his friend Andy Baird got together shortly before Christmas and in less than 24 hours cobbled together a plug-in called NO SOPA for the Chrome browser. The plug-in flags web sites belonging to companies and entities that support the controversial legislation. Once at one of these web sites, Chrome browser users see a red bar at the top of the web page that reads: “Internet Blacklist Legislation Supporter! This company may be a supporter of the dangerous SOPA or PIPA legislation.” Clicking on the bar takes them to a Reddit page with an FAQ about the legislation.

Welcome to the emerging world of programmer activism, in which protests against ideas they find objectionable manifest in code and not just letters to lawmakers.

The NO SOPA plug-in is one of many such projects, such as the DeSOPA Firefox extension and SOAPY plug-ins — intended to help users thwart one way SOPA might oblige Internet infrastructure providers to route traffic away from sites accused of dealing in copyright infringement — that show how politically active web developers can now take action in something of a creative way.

This is their way of interjecting themselves into the relationships of a person on the computer. Hollywood, in their view, is trying to control your access to info on the web. But the entertainment industry lobby may not have figured that programmers could jump into the middle of the relationship between the end user and the web. NO SOPA uses that to make a political point; DeSOPA, SOAPY, and another tool called ThePirateBayDancing make a functional one, by proving the ineffectiveness of the legislation at hand.

ThePirateBayDancing is a Firefox extension built to connect a user to the infamous BitTorrent hub ThePirateBay, even if major Internet infrastructure providers refuse to route traffic to the site.

Under normal circumstances when connecting with a web site, your computer takes a domain name and checks it against a list of computers it knows to be domain name service providers until one of those does you the service of responding with the unique IP address where the site is located. Under SOPA in its current form, providers would be obliged not to answer requests for the domain name ThePirateBay, which would surely be the target of a court order, as well as any other foreign sites accused of being dedicated to hosting or facilitating access to pirated or counterfeit material.

My colleague Nick Judd spoke via email with the person or persons behind the project. They go by the collective handle MAFIAA as a sort of backhanded dig at the MPAA and RIAA, last month.

A person using the handle "Ze" responded:

Right now it's being used to get around DNS/Domain/IP blocks in places like Denmark, Italy, UK, Ireland etc for sites like thepiratebay, btjunkie, newzbin but with just a few tweaks it can easily get past any blocks that SOPA/PIPA throws at it ... SOPA/PIPA is very very bad for the internet, but thankfully ... they are not very hard to dismantle via tech solutions

"By fighting the internet in such a clumsy way," this person wrote, "these people are trying to use a knife to do the job of a spanner. The only thing stopping us from completely dismantling SOPA this month itself is that we don't really have time do it all ourselves or funds to hire others and are thus forced to release every month or so."

The Department of Homeland Security asked Mozilla to stop providing access to an earlier MAFIAA plug-in last year. When Mozilla asked DHS to provide the legal justification for this request, they never got a response, although NBC later filed a DMCA takedown request, Mozilla General Counsel Harvey Anderson told techPresident through a Mozilla spokeswoman. But addons like NO SOPA — that instead augment something that's more of a 21st-century boycott than civil disobedience — are of a different breed.

“I think this kind of thing is a very soft representation of what could be done,” Webster, the author of NO SOPA, says. “You could apply an extension or plug-in to so many social issues, and use information in different ways.”

Another app in a different space illustrates this concept, as Dan Gillmor explains in a recent column in the Guardian.

Called “Boycott SOPA,” an Android App created by two Canadian college students enables smart phone users to scan products to see if they’re from companies that support the legislation. Again, the idea is to give shoppers more information before they inadvertently support a company whose values don’t align with their own.

Gillmor says that the emergence of these kind of apps “suggests deep implications about the future of commerce and politics — and how our individual choices, based on better and better information, will influence both.”

Browser plug-ins as advocacy tools require the user to go find them, first, and then to plug them in: They only work on people who already have a position, rather than bring in new supporters. But there are certainly plenty of people on the Internet who have a strong opinion: Economic activism by this group has already shaken one SOPA supporter, GoDaddy, into publicly reversing its position on the bill. NoSOPA has about 22,600 users. DeSOPA, for Firefox, has almost 16,600. It's a tense time for Internet freedom activists, as the SOPA and PIPA bills have a powerful coalition urging their passage — but the kind of tactics now being put into play may emerge again in some later, subsequent fight.

“If you’re against a certain issue like SOPA or animal testing, you’re actually reminded of that at the point where you may actually take out your credit card, and that, I think is really key,” Webster says.

Nick Judd contributed reporting.