SOPA's Methods Explained: Control For The Intermediaries
The “Fathers of the Internet” had a vision for the Internet, one romantic, poetic, theoretical and entirely unrealistic. The Internet would change everything. It would be the world’s first liberated society, a community without government control.
Who could control it, after all? It had no boundaries built into its TCP/IP Protocol. It knew not whether you were in China or Taiwan, India or Pakistan, America or Mexico. Idealists and libertarians helped build the Internet, and they were convinced it would transcend physical distances. On the Internet, your identity is what you make it. Race, sex, sexual orientation, income, language — most social strata would be meaningless.
These “Fathers” sought to build the Internet for this purpose, and were fiercely protective of its future.
However, a few decades after its creation, the Internet is full of boundaries, and regardless of the outcome of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), governments around the world will always use its methods of intermediary control to hold power. Behind SOPA is a creative way to gain control without going directly to the troublemakers, and while Wednesday’s blackout protests seemed to all but have killed the bill, its methods are already widely used.
Intermediaries are the “go-between” or “third party that offers intermediation services between two trading parties.” They are the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), like Comcast, Charter or Time Warner. They are the search engines, like Google and Yahoo. They are the payment providers, like PayPal.
They are all targeted by SOPA. The government is hoping to force them all to steer clear of foreign sites that host illegally copied material — or else.
It is SOPA’s broad-stroke approach in obstructing illegal content sharing from illegal sites that will, most likely, ultimately be its doom. But SOPA will undoubtedly not be the government’s last attempt at controlling the intermediaries, and to an extent they already do.
The Internet’s borders mirror those in the physical world, and the government will fight to keep those borders free of intruders. The Internet’s rule is decentralized, coming from the nations it serves, reflecting what people truly want. For companies doing business internationally, the threat of lawsuits exist in every country they enter; but the cost of doing business hardly outweighs the immense benefits.
As Tim Wu, a Columbia professor and one of the leading experts on Internet control, said: “Behind the mists and magic of the Internet lies an older and stronger order whose relevance remains inescapable.”
Here’s how the government does it:
The Internet is full of intermediaries, and the government knows that if it controls the intermediaries, it essentially controls the Internet, often without ever going to the actual source of conflict.
If the government has a problem with a particular website, for example, it can instead go to its Domain Name Registry and threaten the registry with a lawsuit if it does not remove the website. Or, it could go to the financial companies that handle financial transactions for that website, and threaten them with a lawsuit if they do not stop doing business with the website. Furthermore, they could go to the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and threaten them with criminal prosecution if they continue to allow the distribution of the websites’ material over their networks.
There are, according to Wu, five major intermediaries that the government can use to control the Internet. They are information, financial, domain name systems, individuals and transport. Information intermediaries include Google and Yahoo and the other popular search engines, like Bing, that sift through content on the Internet and organize it for users. Yahoo has already been forced to limit what it offers because it was sued in France in 2000 (Yahoo! v. LICRA). It also has chosen to make contractual pledges with other countries, such as China, as to what it can and cannot provide.
Google, on the other hand, has flip-flopped on its relationship with China. In January 2010, Google announced it had “detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google.” The attack was aimed at the G-mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. In March, Google backed up its threat to close its China-based search engine, redirecting users within China who tried to bring up Google.cn to Hong Kong’s site, google.com.hk. The Hong Kong site does not censor its Chinese-language searches, and is outside China’s “Great Firewall.”
However, the Chinese government was, apparently, very convincing. According to an article from the American Society of International Law, “According to Google, conversations with Chinese officials indicated that the redirect was ‘unacceptable’ and that the government would not renew Google’s ICP license. Instead, google.cn would now provide a user-clickable link to google.com.hk.”
Google gave in to the government’s demand, and found the best possible alternative, one acceptable to the Chinese government. On July 9, Google announced the Chinese government had renewed its license.
Governments can also control the Internet through financial intermediaries, like PayPal or credit-card companies. Former NY Attorney General Eliott Spitzer threatened American credit-card companies with prosecution if they allowed web gambling transactions at the turn of the century. As a result, he nearly shut down the online gambling industry.
Ironically enough, some of the same banks he targeted led to his resignation years later. His own bank branch in Manhattan turned him into the IRS as someone who might be engaged in suspicious currency transactions, according to Newsday, which led to his getting caught up in an FBI prostitution sting.
Furthermore, the government can turn to Domain Name Systems to control the Internet. For example, during the 2000 presidential race, a website, voteauction.com, was created to allow users to sell and buy votes for candidates. The Illinois Judge didn’t go to voteauction.com, but instead turned to its domain name registry, Domain Bank, and imposed an injunction. Domain Bank had an agreement with its clients that they not use their domain names for “illegal purposes.”
Finally, the government can turn to the most powerful players of them all: the Internet Service Providers. Using cooper wires, wireless or fiber-optic connections, it’s the ISPs that connect users to the Internet, giving them an immense amount of power.
In fact, some have argued the ISPs might control the Internet. The fight between them and the U.S. government continues on to this day.
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