SOPA, PIPA and the GoDaddy Tipping Point

If you own a web site, you need to care about SOPA and PIPA, two of the most ham-fisted measures ever introduced in the name of online copyright protection. Here's a shorthand guide to this legislation, and a look at how GoDaddy's bizarre support for it triggered an internet boycott.

During its next session, congress will vote on two pieces of legislation so stunningly bad that they've ignited protest from some of the founding engineers of the internet, while triggering a boycott of one of the Nations' biggest domain name registrars, Go Daddy. The measures are the House's Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA), and it's Senate cousin, the Protect IP Act (PIPA), both aimed at stopping the perceived threat of internet piracy, while greatly expanding the government's ability to regulate internet content.

While it would be easy for busy web site owners to dismiss this legislation as arcane rulings in the fight against illegal downloads, the far-reaching scope of these bills and the chilling possibilities for regulating web sites effect every content publisher, community web site owner and e-commerce provider. This isn't just legislation trying to stop college students from downloading music: Under these measures, almost any web site could be completely shuttered on the thinnest premise of copyright violation. Worse yet, these bills give the government the ability to block whole sections of the internet, shuttering any site or service for almost any reason. 

There are several detailed posts around the net describing what the legislation holds, but here's some of the most concerning highlights:

1) A Death Penalty for Websites: At face value, the measures provide American companies the ability to legally pursue offshore content pirates while shutting down visitor access to offending sites. While few argue against containing piracy, under these provisions a single copyright infringement on any page of a web site would result in the entire domain being blacklisted from the internet. The measures put enforcement of these rules directly in the hands of internet service providers who would be obligated to redirect an offending website's domain name. For any legitimate business, this amounts to a virtual death penalty for your business that could be triggered under the flimsiest of reasons. One complaint from a disgruntled visitor could redirect your entire website. 

2) Vague Compliance Requirements: The legislation doesn't specify exactly what constitutes a violation, so almost anything could be construed as infringement. Did you accidentally link to a site with copyrighted materials at some point in the past? Did a visitor include a link to an offending Flickr feed in a comment? What about news journalists who post whistle-blowing documents online? Theoretically, almost any of these scenarios could result in a web site being silenced. The implications are staggering.

3) Payment and Search Blackouts: Anyone targeted for violating copyright agreements would immediately be barred from receiving online payments and eliminated from search engine results. This means that if your site is accused of a violation, it would stop showing up on Google, stop receiving any revenues from ad networks, and be barred from receiving payments through PayPal or other systems.

4) Suspiciously Ineffective Technology: The technological solutions proposed in this battle are both draconian and suspiciously ineffective. So much so, you have to wonder whether they are really aimed at stopping piracy in the first place, or whether they are designed to threaten and harass legitimate web site owners. In a brief to Rep. Zoe Lofgren, engineers at Sandia National Labs wrote that DNS filtering — the method chosen to block violating web sites — would be completely ineffective against sites professionally engaged in real theft. Site owners may find the technical aspects of this portion of the measure difficult to follow, but the bottom line is that it simply wont work.)

There are so many bad aspects to these bills you'd have a hard time singling out any specific portion that's worse than the other. But there's something so suspicious about the ineffectiveness of the proposed technical solution that the legislation's authors either had no technical expertise whatsoever, or that they thought no one would notice how comprehensive and arbitrary these rulings would be.

And this is one of the reasons Go Daddy became the subject of an internet boycott.

Rogue Elephant: The Go Daddy Tipping Point

Go Daddy is the nation's largest domain registrar, and one of the first companies to broadly promote the idea of domain name registration to the general public. Before GoDaddy, domain name registration was an area few outside the IT community had even heard of, let alone understood, and it was dominated by competitor Network Solutions. GoDaddy successfully wrestled it's place to the top with low prices and a series of ad campaigns convincing the general public to own their own domain names. They've been remarkably successful at creating a perceived need for this product: While few nontechnical people could tell how DNS actually works, everyone knows Go Daddy. 

More recently, though, the company's fame is for less positive reasons. Its faced increasing criticism for some of its business practices including its questionable ad campaigns, outrage over a CEO who killed an elephant, then posted video online showing him celebrating the kill, and reports of the company arbitrarily yanking domains without warning.

It's support and assistance in crafting SOPA, though, is what finally created a backlash from web masters who are boycotting the company and divesting from its services. Following a post on the community website Reddit detailing Go Daddy's position, thousands of webmasters began pulling their domains and services from the company. In response, Go Daddy quickly issued a statement backing off from their support of the current legislation, but failed to disavow the measure conceptually, saying instead that they would support a different measure at some point in the future. This position— among other actions the company has taken— has motivated many webmasters to continue their boycott

Why Go Daddy continues to support the concept of an internet blacklist after facing such loud criticism from the development community is one for speculation, and yet another chapter in the strange history of one of the internet's most bizarre corporations. 

What You Can Do To Help Fight SOPA

Contact Your Representative and tell them that SOPA legislation is dangerous and damaging. The Electronic Frontier Foundation posted a form for contacting your representatives. You can also find information at fightforthefuture.org. American Censorship.org offers an calling system to notify your representatives by phone.

December 29th is the official day for dropping Go Daddy services, but there's no reason to stop your divestment efforts if you miss the day. There are many other registrars and anti-sopa hosting services available. If you just need to transfer your domain, here's some instructions on how to proceed.