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The “Stop Online Piracy Act” has effectively drawn a line in the sand. On one side, industries lobbying for tighter copyright controls. On the other, advocates for free access to information. Decidedly on the latter side, Wikipedia is set to join a day of protest by going dark for a day. We get an update from the “SOPA Wars”.
- Declan McCullagh Chief Political Correspondent, CNETnews.com
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWikipedia is going dark. For 24 hours on Wednesday, the English version of the online encyclopedia, the world's sixth most visited website, will take itself offline protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act. For months, huge media companies have raised a protracted battle on Capitol Hill over the bill, commonly known as SOPA and its Senate companion. Those bills would clamp down on foreign websites that host pirated content, music, TV shows, and other media.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut many of the big players in the Internet industry say it would place an undue burden on them and erode free speech. Over the last few weeks, the so-called SOPA wars have intensified. Some of the more controversial elements of SOPA and its companion in the Senate have been removed. The White House has weighed in, and now websites like Wikipedia are opting for a kind of nuclear option, taking their case directly to users and asking them to contact Congress to complain. Joining us to discuss this is Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent with cnetnews.com. Declan, thank you for joining us.
MR. DECLAN MCCULLAGHYeah. Hi, Kojo. It's a pleasure.
NNAMDIDeclan, pretty much everyone agrees that online piracy of copyrighted material is a problem that is costing movie studios and other media companies billions of dollars and hurting the economy, but the Stop Online Piracy Act has been controversial from day one. Remind us exactly what SOPA would propose to do.
MCCULLAGHRight. I think it's a case of the cure might be worse than the disease. You don't have a whole lot of Silicon Valley types saying, we love piracy. They have their own intellectual property they want to protect, but they're worried that SOPA goes too far. Now, what does it do? What it is, this is a first in the history of the Internet. It's kind of a blacklist bill. It would allow copyright holders in the U.S. government, that is the Department of Justice, to come up with a list of websites that would rendered inaccessible, that would be basically banned.
MCCULLAGHU.S. Internet users would not be able to access them. That's the original, and even the last month's version of SOPA. The more recent changes -- we haven't actually seen the language yet, but it seems as though the supporters, as you said, are backing away from some of that.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation, or send us a tweet @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to our website kojoshow.org. Declan, back in December you wrote a piece on CNET offering predictions for the tech world in 2012, and among the possible developments you foresaw was the possibility of these SOPA wars escalating and going nuclear. You predicted that some of the big Internet companies might go dark in protest. Is that what's happening with Wikipedia?
MCCULLAGHYeah. Sometimes I actually get things right. Normally, it doesn't happen, but this one I did. It was a piece on CNET last month saying that this might well happen, and we heard in the last few hours that Google is going to post a notice on its home page. It's gonna still work. You can still find things on Google, but they're going to alert their users to the fact that this protest is going on, and probably they're not -- they're being a little coy about the language.
NNAMDII think Wikipedia has been posting such alerts for a while, right?
MCCULLAGHSay that again?
NNAMDII think Wikipedia has been posting such alerts for a while.
MCCULLAGHYeah. Wikipedia -- there's multiple companies are doing things to highlight SOPA tomorrow. Some are going black, and all you're gonna be able to see when you go to Wikipedia is this is an anti-SOPA protest, you're gonna have to do your homework elsewhere if you're in college or high school. But some of them, like Google, are taking a more modest version and saying, here is a link, but we're not actually going to take down our content.
NNAMDIBut it's my understanding that two very influential news sites, Reddit and Boing Boing, are also going black tomorrow.
MCCULLAGHExactly right. It's not everyone. It's not -- Craigslist is going to do something similar. Craig Newmark was in -- sorry, participating in a press conference this morning in D.C., but not everyone who opposes SOPA is doing this yet. Amazon, Facebook, Ebay, Yahoo, have expressed serious concerns about it, so has Twitter, but they're not actually joining the protest, at least not yet.
NNAMDIYeah. Twitter has indicated that it doesn't support the idea.
MCCULLAGHExactly. Which is a little surprising, and you could see some sort of the tweets from Twitter saying, well, it's not like there's anything wrong with the protest, but we're not going to join it ourselves, because Twitter's general counsel, Alex McGillivray has been one of the most outspoken critics of SOPA and any of the tech companies. He's a former Google lawyer. But yes, Twitter institutionally is not actually doing this.
NNAMDIIn case you are just joining us, we are talking with Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent of cnetnews.com about why Wikipedia is going dark tomorrow in protest of legislation now on Capitol Hill. You can call us with your comments or questions at 800-433-8850. Here is Chris is Alexandria, Va. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISHey, Kojo. I'm sorry if I break up here. If it becomes a problem, go ahead and hang up. I'm trying to get to a location. Anyhow, I'll just make this brief. I've got two points. First, I would certainly like to see more major players get on board with these voluntary blackouts. I don't think the average user has an awareness of the implications of this legislation. Secondly, I don't think that's it's fair for, you know, freedom of speech throughout the Internet to enact legislation where the Congress props up an outdated business model for (unintelligible) . I really think that they need to rethink how they're serving their customers and moving their products and, you know, I'll leave it at that.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Care to comment on that, Declan?
MCCULLAGHWhat Chris said is something I'm hearing a lot of. If Hollywood isn't competing, if they're not actually unlocking all of their content and making it available for purchase, then can we really be that -- can we prop up this business model through something like SOPA? And SOPA's designed to go after -- protect IP, but they're designed to go after sites like thepiratebay.org, which has servers in Europe, and it's really outside the reach of U.S. law, so the idea is that we'll block access to U.S. citizens trying to access these overseas websites.
MCCULLAGHI think that the criticism is a probably a little unfair, that is the criticism of Hollywood. But at the same time, if they did make more content available for a modest fee, I mean, you could rent the entire backlog of movies owned by some of the studios for a few dollars, then who's gonna try to go to the Pirate Bay and deal with connections that may not work, maybe you're gonna get malware put on your computer. I think Americans probably do want a legitimate option, as long as it's reasonably priced.
NNAMDIThe White House has offered its own critique of SOPA in a sort of muted way. The official White House blog posted a comment expressing concern about possible free speech implications and cyber security. What are the cyber security arguments, Declan?
MCCULLAGHRight. In the White House statements, it was pretty nuanced. It says we still like the approach, but we just don't like some of the details. There are really two points that the White House brought up. The first is cyber security, and the second is free speech. And the cyber security argument is we have this technology called DNFS that we rolled out -- we, the Internet community, have rolled out to protect Internet users, and it's taken over ten years to get there. And the concern is that SOPA and Protect IP would short circuit this technology and leave Internet users a bit more vulnerable. And this is why Representative Lundgren, who chairs the House Cyber Security Subcommittee has said, whoa, we love DNFS. We've pushing this, and now SOPA undermines it.
MCCULLAGHThe second concern that the White House announced, or expressed reservations about was free speech, and that is, let's say you have a European website, familyphotos.com, and you put your vacation photos on familyphotos.com, and then a subset of pages on that website are deemed to be copyright infringing and now you can't get to your vacation photos anymore. And that is a first amendment issue, and it's something that the supports of the legislation, I think, are now finally beginning to recognize.
NNAMDIYeah. Because this bill is evolving rapidly. One of the more controversial aspects of the House bill has apparently been removed, a requirement that Internet service providers block access to sites accused of piracy. What were the domain name system requirements, and why were they so controversial?
MCCULLAGHWell, it would kind of require a rewiring of the way the Internet works. It would render these sites inaccessible. So let's say that you're trying -- that you, a copyright holder, is concerned about WAMU's website, and what you'll -- normally the way it works, pardon me for being a little technical here.
MCCULLAGHYou type in wamu.org, and your Internet service provider will translate it into a bunch of numbers. In this case, it's 216706886, and that's WAMU's Internet IP address.
MCCULLAGHAnd so what SOPA tries to do is prevent that translation from happening, and so you could still get to websites by using these series of numbers, you just couldn't get to it by using the domain name, and that's called DNS blocking. DNS is the Domain Name System, and this is what's very controversial, because it raises these free speech concerns, and it also raises a security concern, as I mentioned.
NNAMDIThe bills have enjoyed bipartisan support in the House and Senate, a relatively rare feat these days. Over the weekend, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid offered his support for the Senate companion bill to SOPA. You mentioned it earlier, the Protect IP Act or PIPA. How has support and opposition lined up on the hill?
MCCULLAGHIt's interesting. There are 41 co-sponsors of the Senate version, the Protect IP Act, which is a pretty big deal. I mean, once you have almost half of the Senate supporting something, it's likely to go through. And a lot of Senators, I suspect, have signed on because, well, let's do this to stop piracy without really thinking through all of the implications. And to be fair, some of the criticism wasn't leveled until SOPA was introduced in the last few months, but copyright is not a part of the issue. You have bipartisan opposition, and bipartisan support for it.
MCCULLAGHYou have concerns expressed by Nancy Pelosi and Ron Paul about SOPA in the House. The lead sponsor in the Senate is a Democrat, the lead sponsor in the House is a Republican. So it doesn't really line up with our normal way of thinking about politics.
NNAMDIWell, here's what they might have in common. Congress has a pretty mixed record when it comes to drafting laws that govern the Internet. These arguments seem to echo other arguments in the past over issues like net neutrality, online pornography, doesn't it? It also raises a bigger question, whether people who don't really understand the Internet are in a good enough position to decide how to steer its future.
MCCULLAGHThere was a press Washington this morning with folks from Free Press and Public Knowledge and Reddit, and that's exactly the point they made. They said that this is drafted -- this legislation is drafted by members of Congress who don't really understand the Internet. They used words like technologically ignorant language, and that would be overstating the case, but there is -- it's, in part, true. Pretty much every technologist I've interviewed has expressed reservations about the way SOPA would work.
MCCULLAGHThis includes folks like Vint Cerf, the co-creator of the protocol that the Internet is based on. Basically, every engineer who has helped build the Internet, who I've spoken with, has said this is a bad idea and it won't work.
NNAMDIThis has also become an interesting case study in how to use the web in more nuanced ways to affect public opinion, corporate opinion, and lawmaker's opinions. In December, a public protest campaign targeted godaddy.com, the webhosting company, which had been a vocal supporter of SOPA. That godaddy.com ended up reversing course. Now, we have an example of Wikipedia trying to steer protests directly to Congress. Is this a new model for advocacy?
MCCULLAGHIt is. It's something we haven't seen before in American politics, and it's -- even putting the technology and the Internet concerns aside, it's really fascinating to follow, because you have companies like Craigslist who -- they help people find places to live and Facebook and Twitter where you can find jobs or spouses. I think Americans have connections with these companies more so than they do with a corporation creation called, say, Viacom. And you're seeing companies use this direct connection with voters in a way to rally public opinion against the legislation.
MCCULLAGHThis did happen before in 1996 with the Communications Decency Act. Yahoo went black in protest, but the Internet was much younger, and far fewer people were online back in 1996 compared to today.
NNAMDIDeclan, thank you so much for joining us.
MCCULLAGHIt was a pleasure, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIDeclan McCullagh is chief political correspondent with cnetnews.com. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Tayla Burney, with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein and Paola Esparone. (sp?) The managing producer is Diane Vogel. Our engineer, Andrew Chadwick. A.C. Valdez is on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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