How SOPA Works

The Slippery SOPA Slope

Critics level many arguments against SOPA. The act's language indicates that there's no court hearing or means for a site to defend itself -- there's a lack of due process. Almost all the actions under SOPA target sites that link to or otherwise support the identified criminal site. But the illegal content doesn't belong to the ISPs, search engines, payment network services or advertising agencies.

Imagine that you run an enormous search engine like Google -- you might receive thousands of court orders commanding you to remove all links to various sites. How could you take the time to verify that all of those sites actually violate intellectual property rights? Since you don't own the content -- you only link to it -- you would have to take extra time out of running your service to verify someone else's service is legitimate. It's possible that you'd just opt to follow the court order and avoid the trouble. That could lead to censorship.

One site that could get hit by SOPA is WikiLeaks. The whistleblower site hosts documents that detail both government and corporate secrets. While there may be many companies that would prefer to see WikiLeaks go away, the site's servers aren't in the United States and so are beyond U.S. jurisdiction. SOPA might enable companies to cut off access and support to WikiLeaks indirectly.

Then there's the concern for security. Over the past few years, several agencies dedicated to improving the Internet have been working on a security protocol called Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC). The purpose of DNSSEC is to make Internet traffic more secure. The protocol provides origin authentication of DNS data and data integrity. It supports encryption of domain names. But if SOPA requires ISPs to block or remove domain names from their databases, DNSSEC is broken.

Perhaps the most damaging criticism of SOPA is that it wouldn't stop pirates. In December, while House Representatives debated the merits of the legislation, the Internet saw the first counter-SOPA extension for Firefox hit the Web. Called DeSOPA, the extension circumvents blocked domains by checking with foreign DNS servers to resolve the address. Since foreign servers aren't under the jurisdiction of the United States, they retain domains to sites.

Even without extensions, you could still visit a blocked Web site if you knew the correct IP address. These numeric addresses aren't easy to remember and they can change frequently, which is why clever Internet gurus came up with the domain name system. The domain names resolve to the proper IP addresses, meaning you don't have to remember those numbers. But if the domain names are blocked, the numbers may be the best way to get to some sites. If SOPA becomes law, expect to see sites dedicated to maintaining lists of IP addresses for blocked domains.

Debate on SOPA stretched through December and into 2012 with many members of Congress suggesting changes and amendments to the act. Public outcry led to the withdrawal of the bill, at least temporarily, in January 2012. Whether the United States will pass SOPA or a law resembling it remains to be seen. To learn more about how the Internet works, concerns about Internet censorship and the legal system of the United States, take a look at the links on the next page.

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