Legislation There were, as best I could tell without an engineering degree, sound engineering reasons to oppose the DNS-blocking provisions of the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act. An enforcement mechanism that relied on maintaining a security hole in the Domain Name System, just as Internet engineers around the world were implementing a long-awaited fix for that hole, seem pretty self-evidently a bad idea. Especially so since the enforcement purpose itself could be so easily defeated by the simple expedient of typing in IP addressed directly.
There were also, again as best I could tell, serious ideological and societal implications that flowed from that enforcement strategy. Insofar as DNS blocking in the U.S. would encourage the adoption of alternative systems for resolving IP addresses, which were not subject to U.S. jurisdiction but which more importantly did not interoperate with DNS, it would promote the growth of island networks cut
off from each other and the rest of the world, threatening the universality of IP protocols that gives the World Wide Web its potent historical power. While that threat may seem theoretical or even far-fetched at this point, foundational decisions about the governance of networks can have profound and very long-term economic and societal consequences, as the historian Paul Starr demonstrated in The Creation of the Media, and should not be made lightly.
The fact that you can type a URL into a browser nearly anywhere in the world and get to the same information is precisely why the Internet is important. The fact that it is prevented from happening in some important corners of the world, like China, only underscores the potency and value of that universality, and why it should not be trifled with where it still exists.
From that perspective, compromising the long-term integrity of the universal DNS system to try to protect a single, parochial economic interest seems like a pretty lopsided trade.
With the removal of the DNS-blocking provisions from the bills last week, however, much of that danger was eliminated. What’s left is basically a commercial dispute between contending industries, content companies and technology companies.
That doesn’t make SOPA and Protect-IP good bills. From a simple balancing-of-interests perspective they are poorly designed, weighing far too heavily on a potentially broad swath of Internet intermediaries to advance the relatively narrow economic interests of the media companies, and would create incentives that could lead to unintended consequences. Worth fighting over to be sure, but they’re the sort of problems that are at least in principle amenable to being fixed through the ordinary legislative process.
As the principal sponsor of Protect-IP, Sen. Patrick Leahy pointed out, reasonably enough, on Tuesday, “That is what debate on legislation is intended to do, to fine-tune the bill to confront the problem of stealing while protecting against unintended consequences.”
That, in fact, is precisely what is now happening. The day-long blackout by several leading web sites has raised consumer awareness of the interests and issues at stake, leading to public pressure on legislators, many of whom are now abandoning their previous support for the bills, at least in their current forms. What’s likely to happen now is a more careful balancing of interests and extensive revisions to the bills. That’s as it should be.
What ought not get lost amid the blackout, however, is the important change in the nature of the dispute. This is now less a question of the long-term governance of networks and more an ordinary commercial dispute between powerful economic interests. Someone had to keep the lights on to note the distinction.