updated 03:40 pm EST, Wed November 16, 2011
MPAA okay with Internet blocks, mum on DNS issues
MPAA members during a Congressional hearing for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) largely evaded questions of the possible censorship and technical security problems from the proposed bill. The movie studio-backed group's representation, headed by executive affairs and policy lead Michael O'Leary, argued that it was acceptable for the bill to enforce a blacklist of websites because such policies had worked well in other countries. The commentary went so far as to imply that there might be a model to follow in countries like China, where blacklists are used not just for generally transgressive content but also to silence political dissent.
"Did the MPAA just suggest that the U.S. should follow China's Internet lead?" CNET's Declan McCullagh said in mid-hearing. "I'm sure I misheard that [SOPA] hearing comment. Right?"
The media outlet similarly didn't have an answer to technical experts' concerns about the SOPA bill compromising DNSSEC, or the security extensions meant to safeguard domain names for addresses on the web. Under the law, Internet providers and backbones in the US would be required to change DNS entries in a way that breaks with the system, which is considered part of the US government's own defense against rogue attacks. MPAA officials admitted they weren't familiar with the criticisms and didn't have a technical expert on hand, leading them only to say without evidence that they didn't believe it was a risk.
"We disagree," the MPAA said.
Supporters of SOPA in general showed a lack of technical knowledge in the hearing. The MPAA suggested that looking for a movie title by itself, such as "J. Edgar," would turn nothing but pirated sites; actual searches turn up completely legitimate results on the first page, and it requires a deliberate search for pirated material. Republican Tom Marino also insisted that it would be possible for Google to write code that could detect copyright violations, while suggestions were also raised that Google could re-index sites to favor legitimate sources first, ignoring free speech concerns.
Google's policy counsel Katherine Oyama, who was one of the few dissenters to SOPA's policies given time to speak at the hearing, echoed her employer's views that SOPA would violate free speech, contradict the safe harbor provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and damage Internet security. Google preferred laws that targeted the actual infringers themselves and cut off their financial resources to avoid the "collateral damage" that SOPA's broad definitions would have, she said.
She added that, although advocates for the bill claim that it would only be to target known "rogue" sites that primarily trade in pirated content, the definitions in the law were vague enough that a copyright infringement request could be used as a pretext to shut down an otherwise completely legitimate site. Google had already seen these arguments used before, such as rivaling political factions using claims of infringement to try and take down what was just political opinion.
Oyama also suggested that the best alternatives were legal services, such as Amazon and Apple's iTunes, and pointed out the reality that de-indexing wouldn't stop links or other routes to get to these pages. "Internet traffic is going to route around blockages," she said.
In spite of commentary and the lack of technical input, many suspect SOPA might clear Congress based on relatively bipartisan support. A rough parallel to the bill in the Senate, PROTECT IP, has also been put forward. The Obama administration hasn't given its stance on the bill but has often sided with copyright holders over the public, having endorsed the controversial ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) and having tried to keep its negotiations as secret as possible to avoid a public reaction.