Dear Congress: Don't mess with our DNS

The Stop Online Piracy Act may block most of the Net for U.S. netizens and cause other unintended ugly consequences. Don't we have enough brain-dead laws on the books?

This week's hearings on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) have inspired heated conversations all over the Web.

Along with a similar Senate bill, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), this House legislation wants to strong-arm ISPs and other service providers into acting as copyright police for multi-billion-dollar entertainment conglomerates. The House held hearings on its bill this Wednesday. It wasn't pretty.

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The premise behind the legislation is reasonable enough: Rogue websites should not get rich by selling stuff that belongs to someone else, or cheap knockoffs of same. But the way Congress wants to enforce it is back-assward. And though the law is supposed to target only offshore operations, it could also be used as a cudgel against U.S. sites that operate abroad.

Among other details, the law would require service providers, payment processors, and the like to actively police their systems and scrub their Domain Name System servers of URLs for any sites found to be trafficking in pirated goods -- essentially creating a blacklist of "bad" websites.

This is not the same as removing the sites from the Internet. If you dialed up their IP addresses, they would still resolve; if you typed into your browser, you'd encounter an error message of some kind -- probably similar to the ICE banners mistakenly slapped on 84,000 websites last February by the Department of Homeland Security.

There's the big problem with this law: Judges -- many of whom know squat about technology and are still looking for the "any" key -- have the ability to effectively make sites invisible, based on complaints from content holders who are notorious for not caring about how accurate those claims really are. Hey, it's a lot easier to cut off a website for infrigement than to find out whether it's actually infringing.

As written, the laws would whittle away at the Safe Harbor provisions of the DMCA, which give service providers a pass on hosting or linking to pirated content, so long as they cooperate when the RIAA or MPAA target their customers. Thus, YouTube could essentially become a test pattern. Search engines that dare link to these pirate sites could also go dark. (Buh-bye, Google.) And the law would allow U.S. judges to effectively erase sites not owned or hosted in the United States -- which doesn't make our foreign friends very happy either.

You know this is a bad -- and probably doomed -- piece of legislation when partisan warriors from both sides of the aisle condemn it, as U.S. Reps. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Darrell Issa, R-Calif., have done. Yet it has its supporters, and they're mostly who you think they'd be: the RIAA, the MPAA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Better Business Bureau, various Hollywood unions, and (strangely) the AFL-CIO.

The Business Software Alliance -- not the most popular kid in class at its best moments -- has also weighed heavily in favor of SOPA/PIPA. That leads The Next Web's Alex Wilhelm to conclude that all 29 members of the BSA must logically also support it, including Adobe, Apple, Dell, Intuit, Intel, and Microsoft. That's a bit of a leap, I think; Microsoft's official stance is a demure "no comment." Still, as they say, silence is assent.

On the other side, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, and a host of other Internet companies directly in the firing lines strongly oppose these bills. So do civil and digital rights organizations like the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, and trade groups like the Consumer Electronics Association.

Stupid laws written by Hollywood lobbyists that deal clumsily with digital issues most of our elected representatives are too dim or too bored to comprehend -- haven't we been down this road a zillion times already? Why are we going down it again?

Is SOPA just for DOPAs? Share your take on antipiracy laws below or email me:

This article, "Dear Congress: Don't mess with our DNS," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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