Abandon the SOPA Ship: Why Congress is Paddling Away From the Law That the Studios Insisted They Needed to Fight "Piracy"

Friday the 13th (of January 2012) was a bad luck day for SOPA - an "anti-internet-piracy" bill that some experts described as a threat to internet innovation. On Friday the 13th, SOPA's chances for passing in Congress seem to have suddenly run aground.

One clear sign that SOPA was in trouble came when House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) announced that he would postpone hearings on SOPA's DNS-blocking provisions which were scheduled for Wed. Jan. 18th, 2012.

This move came late in the day on Friday the 13th, just hours before the White House issued a statement (early on Saturday January 14th, 2012) saying:

1) President Obama will not support any anti-piracy bill that has the potential to censor lawful activity or inhibit innovation and

2) The White House would reject any legislation that involved DNS-blocking:

"We must avoid creating new cybersecurity risks or disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet. Proposed laws must not tamper with the technical architecture of the Internet through manipulation of the Domain Name System (DNS), a foundation of Internet security. Our analysis of the DNS filtering provisions in some proposed legislation suggests that they pose a real risk to cybersecurity and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online. We must avoid legislation that drives users to dangerous, unreliable DNS servers and puts next-generation security policies, such as the deployment of DNSSEC, at risk."

So what prompted Congressman Issa and the White House to make these moves on Friday the 13th?

Perhaps most significantly, on Friday January 13th, 2012, SOPA author Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) released a statement announcing his intention to remove the DNS-blocking portion of SOPA:

“After consultation with industry groups across the country, I feel we should remove Domain Name System blocking from the Stop Online Piracy Act so that the Committee can further examine the issues surrounding this provision. We will continue to look for ways to ensure that foreign websites cannot sell and distribute illegal content to U.S. consumers.”

What exactly is DNS-blocking and why - beside the concerns of some "industry groups" - had Representative Smith - SOPA's sponsor - decided to abandon DNS-blocking as part of SOPA?

Whatever DNS-blocking is (we'll get to it below) apparently the political support of SOPA had hit an obstacle on Friday the 13th and the Republicans had decided not to push forward: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) talked to Congressman Issa on that day and they agreed that the Republicans would not bring SOPA to the floor for a vote in Congress unless there was a consensus on the bill: Something they could no longer promise.

So what is DNS-blocking and why is it controversial?

How did the rush to enact SOPA - with its DNS-blocking provisions - turn around so quickly?

What caused some of the most ardent backers of SOPA to suddenly shift to positions opposing DNS-blocking?

And, perhaps most importantly, do we really need to bother to understand DNS-blocking (it sounds technical) - now that it's apparently dead?

Even though it seems to have been defeated and it is technical, before we say a final farewell to DNS-blocking, a few minutes spent examining this particular MPAA-backed folly might reveal how the big corporate owners of content (once again) have over-played their hand - by exaggerrating the threat to their business from a new technology and over-reaching in their efforts to quash a disruptive innovation.

Here's how DNS-blocking was sold by the big media companies who claimed they needed it to attack "pirates":

In Nov. 2011 testimony before Congress, the big movie studios claimed that DNS-blocking was no different than spam filtering and an effective and safe technique to "ensure that the content [consumers] find is legitimate."

As the MPAA and RIAA explained it: DNS-blocking meant US internet users would be "blocked" from accessing a foreign site based on the complaint of an MPAA or RIAA member that the foreign site hosted or induced "pirated" content.

And, back in December 2011, it seemed that the studios and record companies could prevail - getting Congress to pass a broad new "anti-piracy" law that included DNS-blocking - over the objections of self-described Free Speech advocates.

In late December 2011, a majority of the House Judiciary Committee seemed ready to accept the MPAA line, that DNS-blocking was a safe and easy way to shut down access to entire "foreign rogue websites" (e.g., The Pirate Bay), even if all that was wrong was that such sites operated "with the object of promoting" the sharing of a "pirated" video or excerpts from a copyright song. After all - it wasn't American sites that SOPA would be blocking, "it only applies to foreign rogue websites" and DNS-blocking was a technology "employed around the world today to deal with spam, malware, viruses and all manner of bad behavior."

But in the first few days of 2012, other web-savvy experts started to get their concerns about SOPA heard. These technicians, researchers and operational specialists (i.e., nerds) were pointing out that the MPAA was glossing over a fundamental problem with SOPA: The proposed law's mechanism for cutting-off access to offending websites - DNS-blocking - was incompatible with the security provisions that are currently the bedrock of the internet.

Apparently, the MPAA and backers of SOPA hadn't taken the time to really familiarize themselves with the operation of the security tools that are in place to prevent criminals from hijacking websites and your private data. These tools cannot tell the difference between what SOPA requires and criminal activity. In other words, to get SOPA to work, the protocols for protecting everyone's privacy would need to be weakened.

Even Comcast, another big supporter of SOPA, had to admit this fundamental flaw: "DNS redirect services... are technically incompatible with DNSSEC and / or create conditions that can be indistinguishable from malicious modifications of DNS traffic."

In early January 2012, some key SOPA supporters finally came to realize that the MPAA and RIAA were asking them to pass a law that would undermine the security of the entire web in return for the (easily circumvented) power to censor the next YouTube or Google.

In the days leading up to Friday January 13th, 2012, Congressional leaders began to realize that DNS-blocking was unacceptable as a solution to "piracy" and - on Friday the 13th - they began to abandon the SOPA-DNS-blocking ship.

So, for now, SOPA with DNS-blocking seems dead...

Of course, there's no guarantee that other provisions of the bill — like the ability for private companies to use one instance of "piracy" to attack an entire website as a copyright infringer — won't show up in other legislation backed by the enormous financial clout of the big media companies.

And certain old media titans, like Rupert Murdoch, were so incensed by the White House's Jan 14th, 2012 statement and the news that SOPA had foundered, that they took to the twittersphere to vent: "So Obama has thrown in his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery."

Stay tuned.

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