In a thinly-veiled message to Internet users throughout the US and beyond, the FBI today (Jan. 19) shut down the file-sharing service MegaUpload.com, seizing the company’s domain name along with its headquarters. With this raid, the feds clearly meant to show that they were the bosses of the online world, laws and legislation be damned. As usual, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
Back up a couple days. On the eve of January 17, Internet sites all over the world were preparing to “blackout” to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) then under consideration in the House of Representatives (in the Senate, as the Protect Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA). The bill would give the government power to seize any website that was reported to be hosting pirated material, or even providing links to such material.
Those doing the reporting, of course, would be the media companies themselves — thus giving them, essentially, a kill switch for sites they don’t like. So if you pan a big-budget movie — or break off a relationship with a studio exec — or really just in any way piss off anyone connected to a lawyer in the entertainment industry — your site could get shut down without due process and without recourse.
But the possibilities for petty revenge are far from the worst thing about the bill. That would be instead its potential to crush political dissent. Under SOPA, the presence of any link to “pirated” material would be sufficient to kill a site — even if the content is provided by anonymous commenters. Hence, the easiest way to silence dissidence online would be to spam the offending site with dubious links.
Even the biggest sites would be susceptible to such tactics; hence why even the behemoths of the Internet, such as Google and Wikipedia, signed onto the protest. With such sites as these “blacked-out” (usually redirecting to petitions or email-your-congressman forms), even casual Internet users found themselves confronted with the ramifications of the government’s latest lunatic notion. For once the people spoke, and many Congressmen reversed position.
The feds couldn’t let such a demonstration go unpunished, but lacking the power to shut down Google and Wikipedia (for now, anyway), they did the next best thing: publicly target and destroy a site like MegaUpload, as a way of announcing that they would shut down whomever they felt like. What they always forget, though, is how little they know about computing and networking, compared to the people who put together the kinds of sites they want to shut down. The response from the actually competent sector of the online world was swift and brutal: within two hours, the hacker collective Anonymous (previously best known for taking down the Church of Scientology site) had attacked and temporarily killed off the sites for the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, the US Copyright Office, and assorted major film studios and record labels.
These sites will all come back, obviously: only the government would claim the right to banish a site for good. But the mere fact that they could go down at all shows their vulnerability to attacks from very loosely affiliated networks of competent individuals. And that is a weakness that, try as they might, the DoJ, the FBI, the MPAA, et al., can never come to grips with: their very existence is predicated on massive, centralized, bureaucratic incompetence. To give that up would be to begin their own dismemberment.
It will be fascinating — and a bit worrying — to see how the government and major media companies will respond. Certainly SOPA and PIPA will come back in new, more insidious forms, probably as riders on unrelated bills. Though President Obama bucked his industry pals and came out against the bills this time (only, of course, once the online campaign against them was in full cry), there is no guarantee he would in a second term. Meanwhile, among the Republican candidates, only Ron Paul (natch) has denounced the bills; a President Romney, Gingrich, or Perry would probably sign them into law. [Edit: in the evening's Republican primary debate in South Carolina, candidates Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul all spoke out against SOPA — though Romney and especially Santorum still appeared to leave space for future censorship of the internet.]
Until then, what is required of us is vigilance — vigilance, and an unyielding determination not to let a few hundred computer illiterates in Washington DC legislate away our cultural future.