SOPA: What is it, and How Could it Break the Internet?



The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was a contentious United States legislation proposed on October 26, 2011, by U.S. Representative Lamar S. Smith to combat online piracy and other forms of intellectual property theft. It would allow the government and copyright holders to seek court orders against websites associated with infringing, pirating, or counterfeiting intellectual property.

SOPA's primary targets are international websites such as torrent websites, like The Pirate Bay, which serve as a treasure trove for illegal downloading. For example, go to The Pirate Bay and put in the name of any current popular movie or television program. You'll be presented with links to download whole seasons and recent episodes for free.

However, the legislation was controversial. Both sides claim that protecting content is a worthwhile objective that legislators should pursue. However, the opposition claims that the way SOPA is designed actively encourages censorship and is riddled with the possibility of unforeseen effects. This article will further explore what SOPA is and what implications it may have on internet security.

What is SOPA?

Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was presented in the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate to combat online piracy. It was proposed as a solution to the issue of enforcing U.S. laws against websites located outside of the country's jurisdiction.

Isn't copyright infringement already a criminal offense?

Yes. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 outlines the procedures for enforcing copyright rights.

Consider the following scenario: an Instagram user uploads art that is protected by copyright. According to existing legislation, the copyright owner of the art may issue a "takedown notice" to Instagram. However, providing that the material is removed within a reasonable period, Instagram is immune from responsibility.

When Instagram receives a DMCA notice, it is required to inform the person who originally submitted the material. Then, that user can submit a counter-motion showing that the material does not violate any intellectual property rights. If the two parties cannot come to an agreement, they may take the matter to court.

Content producers have been fighting piracy and infringement cases such as this for years, but it's difficult for U.S. businesses to take action against overseas sites because of legal restrictions. For example, The Pirate Bay's servers are physically situated in Sweden.

As a result, the goal of SOPA is to compel search engines, advertising networks, and other service providers in the United States to cease operations with piracy websites, making it nearly impossible for them to be used in the United States. The legislation would also make it illegal for websites to provide instructions on how to access banned websites.

How Will Sites be Blocked?

The legislation empowers the United States Department of Justice and copyright holders to identify and punish foreign websites that engage in acts of piracy in the United States. However, before it can proceed, the Department of Justice must first seek a court order, which it can acquire if the website is run by an entity outside the United States or if the owner of the website's domain name does not provide sufficient contact information.

Once a court order has been issued, the Department of Justice and copyright holders will have four primary instruments to use in order to ban websites under the terms of these laws:

1. In the first case, an internet service provider (such as Spectrum) would be required to disable the site's Domain Name Service (DNS) record. The Domain Name System (DNS) Server is dedicated to the task of mapping website hostnames (such as to the associated Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. The DNS server maintains a database of public IP addresses and the domain names that correspond to those IP addresses.

 When a domain name is registered, DNS records are created and stored in DNS servers. DNS records contain information about a domain, such as the IP address associated with the domain and how to handle requests for that domain.

 In order to block DNS records, Internet service providers (ISPs) would be forced to reduce the degree of security necessary to authenticate each site's identification and safeguard against hostile hackers. Unfortunately, this also implies that SOPA could make the internet much less secure than it is now.

2. The second blocking technique requires major search engines (Bing, Google, Firefox, and Yahoo) to remove an accused site from their search results. The reasoning behind this move is that if you can't search for sites that conduct infringement, most people won't be able to discover them, and they will ultimately be unsuccessful.

3. For the third technique, the legislation also specifies that ad providers, such as Google's AdSense, should not accept any advertisements or payments from foreign websites that contain unlawfully reproduced material. This reduces another stream of income for these websites. 

4. Finally, the fourth method bans any site that has been accused of piracy from doing business with other services such as PayPal, among others. Organizations that offer pirated products will not be able to earn money if they are unable to receive payments via secure transaction services. 

The Controversy

There’s a lot of push back against SOPA and other related legislations. Users of video-sharing websites like YouTube, which publishes millions of user-uploaded films each week, are concerned that they may be compelled to monitor such material more carefully to avoid violations. As a result, many say sites like YouTube would be unable to function. There is also the concern of censorship that comes along with this. Most importantly, there are concerns that tampering with the way the DNS works threatens the security of the internet and its users.

SOPA has serious and severe consequences that may jeopardize the internet's general health and security. It may potentially make life simpler for the crooks it is meant to deter. 

Making abrupt changes to the way DNS operates may unintentionally compromise the security of everyone's connection to the internet.

SOPA Breaks the Internet’s Infrastructure

Today, almost every aspect of the US economy is dependent on the seamless functioning of the internet, which in turn depends on the integrity of the Domain Name System. The DNS filtering suggested by SOPA would severely damage that integrity.

So how does it undermine internet security? Senior Threat Researcher, Paul Ferguson, explained it thoroughly on Trend Micro’s security intelligence blog:

First and foremost, the DNS filters needed to implement SOPA could be readily bypassed, making them completely ineffective and worthless. Criminals may devise methods of redirecting users to DNS servers located outside of the United States and outside the scope of SOPA's influence. Users may even seek out these foreign and/or unregulated DNS servers if the websites they are attempting to access have been blocked in their ISP's DNS as a result of SOPA's implementation.

At the moment, the majority of DNS services are provided by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Moving away from them and toward a larger number of private DNS servers may impede attempts to identify and mitigate security risks that depend on DNS data, as well as cause the global DNS hierarchy to become fragmented.

Many individuals who do not agree with SOPA's access restrictions will almost certainly start utilizing DNS servers located outside of the United States, thus circumventing SOPA. SOPA threatens to undermine the predictability of the global DNS hierarchy, which is critical to the overall functioning and security of the internet.

It is possible that the proposed law would weaken the universality of domain names, thus jeopardizing the fundamental functioning and ease of use of the internet. As a result, existing dependencies within the DNS may be disrupted, increasing the likelihood that "innocent bystanders" such as lawful sites and their users would suffer substantial collateral harm as well. Those with no infringing material may be banned, with very limited capacity to be cleared as fast as sites with infringing content. This could potentially put innocent companies out of business.

The collaboration of the United States government and private sector has resulted in a new technology known as Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC), which plays a critical part in the country's overall cyber security policy. Many commercial and public sector networks and government networks have made investments in DNSSEC implementation. The site redirection proposed by the law is incompatible with, and may even jeopardize, the adoption of DNSSEC security technology entirely.

SOPA may expose networks and users to greater security and privacy risks as a result of its implementation. The Domain Name System (DNS) on the internet is a critical building element that has contributed to the internet's enormous success. Despite its well-intentioned and unexpected effects, SOPA has the potential to undermine the stability and security of the whole internet and all of its users.

Other Issues with SOPA

The implications that SOPA could have on the internet's infrastructure are a big deal and the most important when considering how SOPA would break the internet. However, there are some other notable issues with SOPA, according to Stanford University.

SOPA Hurts Innovation

As a result of dramatically raising the risks involved with hosting user-generated material, SOPA would make it much more challenging to establish new internet businesses. Even if SOPA had been passed, it is unlikely that websites like Facebook or YouTube would have been able to get off the ground.

SOPA is Unconstitutional

The operator of a website may be accused of “avoiding confirming a high probability” that “a portion” of its site is being used to violate copyrights under SOPA. Advertisers and payment processors must then cease working with that site.

Content owners may frequently shut down websites without ever going to court. In addition, the Attorney General and the Justice Department may block websites before they are found to be infringing. This could be detrimental to businesses. Also, those claiming to be copyright owners may only be posing as such, leading to websites being shut down over false claims.

SOPA Suppresses Legal Speech

It enables content providers or the Attorney General to accuse and ban websites that promote infringing material. To avoid responsibility, Internet Service Providers and websites must over-block material, even non-infringing speech. And by forcing ISPs to delete every infringing domain name, it would ban thousands of unique websites with enormous quantities of protected speech with no infringing material. 

SOPA Destroys Safe Harbor 

So long as they delete potentially infringing content when they receive complaints, providers are immune from responsibility for suspected copyright infringement. SOPA reverses the system. As part of SOPA, content owners may ask advertisers and payment processors to cease doing business with websites that violate copyright or trademark. Websites will be able to be shut down without going to court. 

Where is SOPA now in 2021?

For the time being, the SOPA bill has been tabled. The Copyright Alliance's executive director, Sandra Aistars, claimed that the technology sector had failed to offer meaningful "tweaks" to amend the legislation despite all the claims that people in the technology industry made.

The Obama administration, which had previously quiet during the debate, weighed in against the legislation, stating that, “While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet.” After this, several top sponsors of the legislation stopped supporting it.

Also, in mid-November, a joint letter to Congress from major technology firms such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and eBay expressing worry about SOPA was one of many important events in changing the tide against the proposed legislation, as well as visits from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture investors. After multiple protests and “internet blackouts” involving websites such as Reddit and Wikipedia, internet users also significantly influenced the support of the legislation.

What Does This Mean for the Future on the Internet?

While SOPA has been tabled, for now, it’s essential to know about the legislation and its implications. Internet piracy is a big deal, and more legislation will likely come about to prevent it. However, it’s also vital that the government doesn’t impede on internet security. Lawmakers could write better laws by listening to security, IT, and internet infrastructure specialists about the impact of proposed legislation involving the internet. 

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