SOPA and PIPA: The White House Changes Its Stance

The explosion in major names denouncing  SOPA and PIPA (including giants of the internet like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and the Wikimedia foundation, who are all considering an unprecedented ‘blackout’ on January 18th) now has a new supporter in the name of the White House and the Obama administration. 

A statement released from the White House today, in response to a number of petitions, has called for both sides of the debate to work together to pass “sound legislation” to avoid “disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet”. This must surely be taken as somewhat good news to those who oppose SOPA and PIPA. This vocal and outspoken opposition has denounced the two bills for a number of reasons. These reasons include, but are not limited to the fact that SOPA would likely become an impediment to free speech on the internet, it would likely override provisions from the 1998 DMCA that provided content hosting websites with a safe zone to remove infringing content, and a general threat to business all across the internet. The vague and general wording of the bills has come under much criticism. These issues may be some of the major concerns of the petitioning public, but the Obama administration appears to have its own independent reasons for its stance on SOPA and PIPA.

One of the administration’s major concerns is with the “architecture of the internet” and specifically the DNS. The DNS could be considered essentially an internet directory, and the White House statement appears concerned that SOPA’s effects on the DNS would open up new “cybersecurity risks”. Stewart Baker has previously pointed out that if SOPA was passed, the security upgrade to the DNS (DNSSEC) would be undermined. This is one of the risks that the White House statement takes into account, as they note that “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”. It is somewhat reassuring to see that the White House has taken this into account.

However, it is interesting to note that this is the only real point of opposition to SOPA and PIPA that the White House addresses. Other concerns, such as the ones previously noted, were not addressed, and on first glance, readers may think that the White House either does not note these issues or does not consider them to be major issues. Though it would be unfair to say unequivocally that the White House does not consider these major issues, it is interesting to note that they do not appear to address concerns about privacy, accountability, and the actual efficacy of the bills. Concerns about practices that would be invasive to individual privacy in order to determine exactly what information has been transmitted, such as deep packet inspection, are well founded. Given that much of the public opposition to SOPA and PIPA has surrounded First Amendment concerns, it is somewhat disheartening to see that the White House has not addressed this major public concern.

In this writer’s opinion, however, a major concern about these bills is the question of their actual efficacy. The Department of Homeland Security  (DHS) has been, over the last year or so,  concentrating attacks on a number of websites that host or provide infringing content to the public. However, many of these websites, which are often video-hosting websites, are quickly back up within a few days, or relocate to a different address and continue their activities as normal. SOPA and PIPA may intend to stop this continued infringment, but their future success could be questioned. The internet is immeasurably vast and one can simply imagine a situation where offending websites continue to live on after being shut down, or after browser companies are to stop directing to them. It is easy for a website operator to relocate on the Internet, and given some operator’s propensity for surviving DHS attacks and shutdowns, we could see the bills being introduced but failing to meet their proposed goals.

While SOPA and PIPA appear to have honourable intentions at their cores, given the ever expanding and immeasurable nature of the internet, as well as the explosion in available information on the internet, it seems unlikely that SOPA and PIPA will be truly successful in their current forms. The White House’s suggestion that in their current forms these bills would not be supported and that some amendments are required are important steps towards the creation of a more effective and fair regime, but more work needs to be done. It remains to be seen if public pressure and the rumoured internet blackout will have their intended effects. However, one thing is certain, the storm surrounding this issue will likely not subside for some time.

Update (January 16, 2012): It appears that following this statement from the White House, there will be no vote on these bills, “unless there is consensus on the bill”. The Guardian newspaper, in this article suggests that this effectively has stopped the bills in their tracks and in some ways shelved them.

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