Opinion – What SOPA Means for a Non-US Citizen

SOPA heads for a vote tomorrow. There’s no question what kind of damage it could do to internet companies, users of the internet, jobs and the economy within the United States. Drew Wilson offers a perspective on what SOPA means as a citizen of a country outside the United States.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

BoingBoing is noting that today is the last day for US citizens to have their voices heard before the legislation is brought to a vote. SOPA – (Stop Online Piracy Act) is basically enacting a sort of “Great Firewall of America”. This is named after China’s famous internet censorship known as the Great Firewall of China.


The term, “Great Firewall of America” is especially appropriate given what the legislation is really about – censoring the internet. If someone wants to take down their competition, all they have to do is secretively go to a government body and complain that the website is infringing on copyright. That can set the wheels in motion to have the website simply vanish off the internet – all over a single, unproven claim of infringement.

Proponents say that this is merely to stop rampant piracy, but for the end-user, it means little more than an inconvenience. We were one of the first websites to discuss ways for users to bi-pass, circumvent and defeat such censorship (some more effective than others). Unfortunately, defeating American censorship is pretty much an end-user game. For websites, trying to avoid being censored is a completely different story short of moving servers and domain names offshore to a free speech friendly country. Knowing this, I am proud that ZeroPaid participated in the American day of censorship and I thank Chris, Jorge and Jared for having this website a participant on such an important issue. We took a stand and said government mandated censorship on the internet without critical oversight is wrong.

A lot of the concern, in spite of all of the ways Americans can avoid censorship, still revolves around the negative effects of the US end-user. What is discusses less, however, is the negative effects SOPA would have on non-US citizens and why it’s bad for the US. Not to sound egotistical, but I am personally an excellent example of this.

What SOPA Would Mean for Me

I am a non-US citizen residing outside of the US. I am a journalist who reports on copyright, privacy, technology and all things related to the best of my ability. ZeroPaid, here, is a US-based website. Since I contribute a lot of my time and effort to a US-based website, that means the inherent value of the website goes up (given that an additional staff member working to make the website better means the value of the website goes up). More content on the main page means more traffic to the website. More traffic to the website more or less means more advertisement revenue. A number of these advertisements advertise for US companies. This means that not only is there additional revenue for ZeroPaid, but also for a number of these other websites as well. All of these companies would then be contributing to the US economy. Really simple web economics, really.

Now, SOPA comes in to the picture. Knowing that nothing more than a simple accusation can theoretically remove a website from the internet, I personally get concerned; especially knowing that I’ve had my fair share of questioning the motives and actions of the entertainment industry. I do what any rational person, who has contributed to the US economy from the outside, does: ask what sort of assurance the web administrator has that the website I work for isn’t a case of “here today, gone tomorrow”. If SOPA is passed, the honest answer that a web administrator residing in the US ultimately is, there is nothing the administrator can offer that can guarantee the security of the websites existence. Even if the website was moved completely offshore, the administrator is still in the US jurisdiction. What US authorities and lobbyists can do is anyone’s guess for the foreseeable future theoretically speaking.

The SOPA Effect on Others

I wouldn’t be alone in this. I’m sure there are thousands, if not, more, people in the same boat as me. They work for a US website and now their website can theoretically be targeted maliciously and censored. They would then be unable to contribute to the US economy just like me. The websites existence is just one bad review, one troll or one user posted link away from being terminated.

People such as myself would have two choices should SOPA pass, either choose to stick it out and hope that, by luck or chance, won’t be the next website targeted by US censors, or look for a website that has as few connections to the US as possible. Some people do require that sense of stability and may choose to leave based on lack of technical assurance that the website won’t be censored or removed. So, even before a single website is removed, SOPA is harming the US economy.

Once the entertainment lobby, several over corporate entities and who knows what else starts ordering the takedown of numerous websites, the threat will become real for many non-US citizens. Non-US citizens will be able to fully appreciate the type of threat the legislation has whether they want to believe it or not. Some might choose to stay on the website they work for or freak out and leave for a non-US website. In other words, whether the website is censored or not, the damage on the US continues.

Follow the Legislation “Leader”

We’ve seen it with the Three Strikes law and we’ve seen if through the DMCA (re: TPP). Once one country enacts a draconian copyright law, entertainment lobbyists use it as a license to pressure other countries to enact similar legislation.

If SOPA is passed, then other countries would face pressure from these major corporations. Some would likely bow to pressure immediately while other countries would resist and hold out for a while. This is the next immediate threat to non-US citizens. While there is the direct impact of having job losses due to a tough censorship regime, the second is the threat of the local government enacting similar (or worse) laws.

The Effect on Piracy

Websites are being censored on the whim of a single complaint. Proponents say that this legislation is needed to stop rampant piracy and that those who question the legislation based on censorship concerns are ignoring the serious implications of piracy.

I’d like to explain how the issue of piracy in the face of this legislation will work in the real world. Websites outside the US would start getting blocked. OK, what to hardcore pirates do when this happens? They circumvent it. We already covered 8 ways pirates could theoretically accomplish this. These methods existed before SOPA was the talk of the town. There will be an arms race to beat the censors should this legislation pass with increasingly more sophisticated way to defeat censorship. Failing this, there would likely be ways of sharing IP addresses for servers. We know how successful private BitTorrent websites are and it’s very likely that success in a similar method of file-sharing is entirely possible. If ISPs started enacting protocol blocking, traffic encryption would be presented as a way to bipass such restrictions at the ISP level. With some back and forth, it’ll likely get to the point where, at best, the ISP will see a lot of traffic from certain users, but they wouldn’t know exactly what it is for because it’s heavily scrambled. In short, the effect SOPA would have on piracy is zero – zero, zilch, nothing.

Let me reiterate my point concisely: through SOPA, for the price of lost jobs, increase is restraint on free speech, an economy that would be more vulnerable than before, a destroyed reputation of being the world leader in human rights like never before, and the destruction of innovation used to make the US compete better in the global economy, the net gain is absolutely nothing.

As a content creator and producer of music, I say SOPA is very bad news for everyone. I am against it because in this day and age, the loss of freedom, the economy and jobs in general is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. We need to look forward, not drive the traditionally strongest economy into the stone age just to keep a handful of maladaptive corporations happy.

Website people can use to join the cause of stopping American censorship [Americancensorship.org]

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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