You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Tomorrow, a Hearing On Who Should Be Allowed to Disconnect Some of the Internet's Tubes

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, November 15 2011

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill that would institutionalize measures the Department of Justice has supported in the name of stopping copyright infringement but opponents say would fundamentally and deleteriously effect the structure of the Internet.

All corners of the technology press have covered what SOPA would do, so I'll point you elsewhere except to say that this piece of the bill seems to me to be an echo of efforts that the Department of Homeland Security has tried — with mixed results — to implement already.

One provision inside SOPA would call on service providers help to prevent access to a foreign website accused of software piracy or other copyright infringement. That's it — the U.S. Attorney General's office just needs to obtain a court order against a given site. Once served with an order, a domain name service provider, for instance, would be obliged to stop connecting people with a site accused of copyright infringement. Normally when you ask your browser to go find you a website, it asks around, basically, until it finds a nameserver that can take the domain name you have and return the IP address you need. That nameserver returns the location of the resource you're looking for and all is hunky-dory. This law would oblige the owner of the nameserver to instead give your browser the digital equivalent of a hapless shrug. It would also require search engines to remove links, payment providers to stop offering service, and advertising services not to serve ads on such a site's behalf. In short, the bill calls for the large-scale online shunning of any site that industry representatives and federal prosecutors could obtain a court order to block.

If this sounds familiar, it's because federal officials earlier went on a bit of a takedown spree, starting last year, to seize domain names allegedly being used in connection with copyright-infringing activities. The servers on which these job-killing illicit copies — of oh, I don't know, Parks and Recreation — reside are elsewhere, and are untouched in this plan; the idea is to point the Internet around the stuff that industry representatives say is damaging their business. But someone with piratical aspirations — or wrongly accused, for that matter — could still get a new domain and just use that instead.

This approach inspired the creation of Mozilla Firefox add-ons that find old websites at new domains, which DHS understandably did not like. When Mozilla was asked by DHS to stop providing the add-ons, though, Mozilla's attorney instead asked for proof they had to do what DHS was asking them to do. It doesn't look like DHS ever offered a sufficient response, as one of the add-ons in question, Mafiaafire, is still alive and well.

The bill is the latest in a series of industry-backed efforts, most recently the PROTECT IP Act, in search of a path through Congress and into law. The committee hearing is tomorrow at 10 a.m., and while Google's counsel has been invited to testify, CNET reports they'll be the only opponent of many. While Facebook and Zynga are among the bill's detractors, writes their Declan McCullagh, they won't be able to send representatives to speak their piece.

This post has been corrected to fix the name of the bill.