White House responds to SOPA protests

The Obama administration turns up the heat on SOPA/PIPA bills

The White House has issued its initial response to an online petition protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).

The word? We need to keep focusing on fighting intellectual property theft and copyright infringement, but not at the cost of potentially breaking the Internet and enabling censorship.

PIPA (S. 968) and SOPA (HR. 3261), are two pieces of legislation with essentially the same theme: give private copyright holders more tools to pull down pirated copy from the Internet. That sounds good on paper, but critics have lambasted both pieces of legislation as giving far too much control to copyright holders (read: big media) and not enough to due process.

The White House didn't outright call out big media, but its response did urge caution against arbitrarily shutting down websites in an effort to halt online piracy.

"Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small. Across the globe, the openness of the Internet is increasingly central to innovation in business, government, and society and it must be protected. To minimize this risk, new legislation must be narrowly targeted only at sites beyond the reach of current U.S. law, cover activity clearly prohibited under existing U.S. laws, and be effectively tailored, with strong due process and focused on criminal activity."

The White House response was to two petitions on its online petition system, We the People: the "Veto the SOPA bill and other future bills that threaten to diminish the free flow of information" and "Stop the E-PARASITE Act" petitions. Both garnered more than the necessary 50,000 signatures to warrant a response from the Obama administration. The official response was co-authored by Victoria Espinel, Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator at Office of Management and Budget; Aneesh Chopra, U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President and Associate Director for Technology at the Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Howard Schmidt, Special Assistant to the President and Cybersecurity Coordinator for National Security Staff. *[Disclaimer: I personally signed the former of these two petitions.]*

In its response, the White House seemed cogent about the potentially damaging effects of SOPA and PIPA:

"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."

This is key, because it highlights another fundamental problem with SOPA and PIPA: the new laws would easily stop too many law-abiding web sites and completely miss the real target: actual hosts of pirated media material.

The White House response posted today stopped short of pledging to veto the two bills, which supporters say is a must. Instead, the White House urged supporters and opponents of the bill to come together to build new legislation to sop online piracy this year.

"Washington needs to hear your best ideas about how to clamp down on rogue websites and other criminals who make money off the creative efforts of American artists and rights holders. We should all be committed to working with all interested constituencies to develop new legal tools to protect global intellectual property rights without jeopardizing the openness of the Internet. Our hope is that you will bring enthusiasm and know-how to this important challenge."

In other words, let's get the geeks involved in fixing this problem the right way.

There are increasing signs that supporters of the two bills winding their way through Congress are facing mounting political liability. Politico reported on Jan. 10 that "[t]he hot-button anti-piracy legislation that sparked a revolt online is starting to become a political liability for some of SOPA's major backers. Fueled by Web activists and online fundraising tools, challengers are using the bill to tag its congressional supporters as backers of Big Government--and raise campaign cash while they're at it."

On Jan. 18, Reddit and several other web sites plan to completely go dark in protest of the two bills--a response that is already causing some Senators and Representatives to finally blink.

Personally, the White House's response is a good start in the right direction--the administration is aware of the technical and legal problems with SOPA and PIPA and--more importantly--the White House is sending a signal to legislators that it darn well knows what those problems are. Given the increasing political temperature surrounding these two bills, many other supporters in Congress may soon feel the heat in this kitchen is too hot to bear.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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