SOPA & PIPA: threats to NZ's national interests

The US Congress' pending Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and related legislation could see NZ sites unfairly knocked offline. Our government should object.

Kiwis get all upset at the slightest suggestion of a foreign government trying to influence our domestic law-making. The US government and others do so to further their national interests. We now have the mirror opposite situation.

UPDATE: Congress shelves SOPA - but InternetNZ warns threats remain

I’d like to see the NZ government work within accepted diplomatic boundaries to at least express concerns at two US laws in the making- SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act before the House of Representatives) and PIPA or the PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act before the Senate).

Not that expressing our concerns are going to make much of a difference. These two Acts are typical examples of the corruption destroying the United States’ democratic foundations that Lawrence Lessig spoke about at last year’s NetHui. He was referring to laws written by powerful corporates and expeditiously passed into law word-for-word.

With New Zealand being the least corrupt country in the world, we have the moral right to do so. We need to stand up against the export of corrupt US politics to democracies around the world. Lawrence Lessig put it even more strongly- we have the duty to do so. Further, as I’ll explain later in this post, our vital national interests are under threat.

These Acts are broadly similar, aimed at “rogue” non-US websites providing material violating copyright and counterfeit goods. That’s right, they are US domestic laws targeting websites hosted in New Zealand and other countries.

The Acts would enable the US government and intellectual property holders to force US ISPs to block “rogue” websites; stop services to them (advertising, and payment processing); and prevent search providers (like Google) displaying links to them.

As currently written, SOPA requires court orders while PROTECT IP doesn’t. Both focus on Internet intermediaries based in the USA to target and block non-US websites.

Much of the criticism about these Acts are around the low barriers to shut down websites without due process based on allegations alone; the disproportionate response; and the way “rogue” websites are blocked. Also, the inflated and made-up Intellectual Property losses due to the Internet trotted out by Hollywood and others that we are familiar with in New Zealand and around the world.

Example of an NZ website
Take the example of a New Zealand website selling Kiwi handicrafts, both domestically and internationally. The first Google search result is KiwiArtz Store so let’s take them as our case study.

One fine day they find that they are no longer on the major search engines, rendering them invisible to much of the world. Much of their online advertising has been blocked. They find they can no longer accept credit card payments online. Customer complaints are flooding in. People going direct to their website from the US are re-directed to an Intellectual Property violation page.

There was no warning and they are worried as business is badly down. On investigation they find that all of this was due to an aggrieved US company taking action under the new law (whether or not the US company is right or not or indeed whether it even has a valid grievance in the first place is all irrelevant).

KiwiArtz Store now has some difficult choices to make. Should they put in the money, time and effort to fight the US company in a US court of law? Should they close down and perhaps re-open under a new name? Should they block US visitors to the website and negotiate with the US company directly? Should they give up online sales entirely and focus on in-person customers only?

And, if KiwiArtz Store had a .com domain name with a US registrar, things would have been worse. Their domain name would be gone.

Breaking the Internet
Both SOPA and PIPA have been criticised on many grounds. Some, including many US tech giants, have supported the end goal (cracking down on “rogue” foreign websites) while condemning the means. Others are critical of both the goals and the means.

There are two angles that I want to further detail. They are the ways that the Acts will be implemented which undermine New Zealand's national interest of having an open and strong Internet.

First, the way websites will be blocked is by breaking the DNS (Domain Name System) and thereby the Internet itself. This is one of the major grounds why the White House opposes the two laws (the others are that the Acts “reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet.”).

All the global efforts to strengthen the DNS, including in New Zealand, such as DNSSEC, won’t work anymore. DNSSEC is a great way to ensure that when you, for example, type into your browser, you actually go to the Inland Revenue website and not some malicious website trying to steal your money or personal information.

Second, Intellectual Property and prescription medicines are only the tip of the iceberg- industries that are trying to break the Internet for their own narrow gains. These areas are first up due to the incredible lobbying power and money of Hollywood and the big pharma companies. Watch this excellent presentation by Cory Doctorow to understand how the areas demanding protection will only increase as a part of the coming war on general computing.

To that extent, even if you have zero interest or sympathy for Intellectual Property issues, it is only a matter of time before the war comes to your doorsteps. And it could be from any number of countries who follow, or are pressurised to follow, the US lead.

Time to draw a line
These two Acts may well be postponed, modified, vetoed by the US President, or challenged in the US courts. But we can’t sit around and be a silent spectator.

The good guys won the first round (ACTA) with the help of the European Union. The second round (3 strikes legislation) was probably a tie while corporate greed is ahead in round three (Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations). SOPA and PIPA are the next round. The hydra-headed war between corporate greed and an open Internet goes on.

The time’s come to draw a line and for the New Zealand government to go in to bat for our national interests. We have both a moral right and duty to do so.

Vikram Kumar is chief executive of InternetNZ, a non-profit organisation that advocates on behalf of New Zealand users and, though its subsidiaries, administers NZ web addresses.

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