The Elders of the Internet Take a Last Stand Against SOPA

SOPA has been ridiculed and has been called by various derogatory names over the last few months. However, the day of SOPA’s appearance before the Senate is closing in, and the bill is passing through unobstructed, as if it has a pre-determined fate. There has been massive online agitation against the bill to no avail. The bill is being discussed at the Judiciary Committee today, and very soon, its will be decided, probably in favor of the media giants it serves.

As a last stand against SOPA and the notoriety it can raise, a group of 83 key people (internet inventors and engineers) sent an open letter to the members of the United States Congress, stating their opposition to this infernal bill, which curbs free speech and the freedom of online expression.

The exact content of the letter says,

We, the undersigned, have played various parts in building a network called the Internet. We wrote and debugged the software; we defined the standards and protocols that talk over that network. Many of us invented parts of it. We’re just a little proud of the social and economic benefits that our project, the Internet, has brought with it.

Last year, many of us wrote to you and your colleagues to warn about the proposed “COICA” copyright and censorship legislation. Today, we are writing again to reiterate our concerns about the SOPA and PIPA derivatives of last year’s bill, that are under consideration in the House and Senate. In many respects, these proposals are worse than the one we were alarmed to read last year.

If enacted, either of these bills will create an environment of tremendous fear and uncertainty for technological innovation, and seriously harm the credibility of the United States in its role as a steward of key Internet infrastructure. Regardless of recent amendments to SOPA, both bills will risk fragmenting the Internet’s global domain name system (DNS) and have other capricious technical consequences. In exchange for this, such legislation would engender censorship that will simultaneously be circumvented by deliberate infringers while hampering innocent parties’ right and ability to communicate and express themselves online.

All censorship schemes impact speech beyond the category they were intended to restrict, but these bills are particularly egregious in that regard because they cause entire domains to vanish from the Web, not just infringing pages or files. Worse, an incredible range of useful, law-abiding sites can be blacklisted under these proposals. In fact, it seems that this has already begun to happen under the nascent DHS/ICE seizures program.

Censorship of Internet infrastructure will inevitably cause network errors and security problems. This is true in China, Iran and other countries that censor the network today; it will be just as true of American censorship. It is also true regardless of whether censorship is implemented via the DNS, proxies, firewalls, or any other method. Types of network errors and insecurity that we wrestle with today will become more widespread, and will affect sites other than those blacklisted by the American government.

The current bills — SOPA explicitly and PIPA implicitly — also threaten engineers who build Internet systems or offer services that are not readily and automatically compliant with censorship actions by the U.S. government. When we designed the Internet the first time, our priorities were reliability, robustness and minimizing central points of failure or control. We are alarmed that Congress is so close to mandating censorship-compliance as a design requirement for new Internet innovations. This can only damage the security of the network, and give authoritarian governments more power over what their citizens can read and publish.

The US government has regularly claimed that it supports a free and open Internet, both domestically and abroad. We cannot have a free and open Internet unless its naming and routing systems sit above the political concerns and objectives of any one government or industry. To date, the leading role the US has played in this infrastructure has been fairly uncontroversial because America is seen as a trustworthy arbiter and a neutral bastion of free expression. If the US begins to use its central position in the network for censorship that advances its political and economic agenda, the consequences will be far-reaching and destructive.

Senators, Congressmen, we believe the Internet is too important and too valuable to be endangered in this way, and implore you to put these bills aside.

The letter has been signed by eminent people like Vincent Cerf- the co-designer of TCP/IP and one of the earliest founding fathers of the Internet, Paul Vixie- the author of BIND which is the most popular DNS software, Ben Laurie- founder of the Apache Software Foundation and Jim Gettys who authored the HTTP/1.1 protocol used for most web-transfers. The list is 83 people long and includes networking gurus who worked on the early version of the Internet, top-level ex-employees of organizations like ICANN, IETF, Nokia, DARPA and likewise.

Never before in the history of mankind have so many eminent personalities from the world of computer networks joined hands for a single cause. It would be of great shame for a nation to harbor such a priceless talent pool, yet, not pay heed to their pleas, and decide the fate of their creation.

SOPA is a bill of interest for the US government because it also gives the US Government a kill-switch to the Internet. With numerous websites registered with domestic registrars in the US, this bill will play a big role in censoring of negative sentiments against governments, key people and key industry establishments.

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Chinmoy Kanjilal

Chinmoy Kanjilal is a FOSS enthusiast and evangelist. He is passionate about Android. Security exploits turn him on and he loves to tinker with computer networks. You can connect with him on Twitter @ckandroid.