Why isn’t the Internet breaking?

During the squabble over SOPA and PIPA, one of the underlying (and possibly just lying) PR bullets coming out of Silicon Valley was that the actions called for in the bills would “break the Internet.”  And when that wasn’t the claim, the most consistent complaint was that the bills would chill free speech.  But in the wake of violent protests to an online video that may be related to the deaths of American diplomats, it turns out there is suddenly room for discussion about both speech and algorithmic solutions to thorny problems in an otherwise “free and open Internet.”

According to this piece by Somini Sengupta in yesterday’s New York Times, there is not only room for discussion, but it seems we’ll be having this discussion for quite some time and hearing from many parties. If nothing else, this article makes plain that the concept of free speech is no more universal inside the conference rooms at Google and Facebook than it is among nations.  So, if speech is relative, and algorithms can theoretically be written to correspond to definitions of “hate speech,” what was all that flap about SOPA and PIPA? I know the mechanisms requested by those anti-piracy bills are different from those required to address the issues cited here, and I don’t know anything about writing code; but it seems to me that the math problem in the case of analyzing hate speech worldwide is a hell of a lot harder than cutting off funding sources to a finite number of torrent sites.

The irony, of course, is that the makers of The Innocence of Muslims are fully protected by the First Amendment, even though what they chose to do with that right is irresponsible and loathsome.  And even if someone did manage to come up with a universal definition for hate speech, and a programmer managed to write code to seek it out on the Web, it’s possible this film that started all the trouble might not even meet the narrow criteria that would need to be written.

By contrast, the transactions made possible through torrent sites are not protected by the First Amendment, are comparatively easy to define, and extremely easy to locate.  Yet, we were led to believe that neither law nor technology could possibly have stopped or even mitigated piracy.  I don’t know.  As I say, I don’t write code, but it sounds a little bit like the masters of the Internet are clearly capable of flying F-18s when they need to but suddenly incapable of driving golf carts when they don’t want to.

© 2012, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • As with most things, censorship is only bad when it’s the other side doing it.

    It would take a really brave man to stand up and say that people should be allowed to make and distribute movies like Innocence and if anybody decides to get violent about it, then those people should be hunted down by the law and punished. If movies like that offend your religious sensibilities – just don’t watch them. Nobody can force you to.

    Anyone saying something along those lines will:
    a. Become a target,
    b. Will be shouted down by other well-meaning people as a proponent of hate-speech.

    On the other hand, there’s a bunch of people out there that are really down with the idea that paying a not-so-big internet bill (which they’d probably be paying anyway) entitles them to endless free content. There’s also a lot of businesses that are making money from perpetuating this state of affairs. Naturally, they’re going to be up in arms about anyone trying to upset this cozy situation.

    It is perhaps most evident if we consider something like support for DDoS attacks. If the RIAA/MPAA were to carpet-bomb the Pirate Bay (for example) that would be decried as censorship. When Anonymous pulls one of those on the RIAA/MPAA, then it’s the plucky digital natives striking back at the Man.

    Sadly, populism is the watchword of modern politics, so unless the creative industries take to the streets (as they should’ve done a long time ago), nothing is going to change much.

    • I think you will find idiots on all sides of an argument. Personally I felt that the Anonymous attacks on the RIAA/MPAA were not acceptable either, but I tend to stick to my principles regardless of whether they suit me or not. 🙂

      That also goes for free speech: to me, people have a right to be assholes, and I think people are far too easily “offended” these days. Why would I care if someone else mocks my religion? If God is offended by it, I’m sure He knows how to deal with it. 🙂

  • I didn’t know how serious this article was meant to be, especially with the mentioning of “So, if speech is relative, and algorithms can theoretically be written to correspond to definitions of “hate speech,” what was all that flap about SOPA and PIPA?”, but if so: let’s get this debate started. 🙂

    Considering that I’m experienced in both hardware and software design, and a musician to boot, feel free to bring on the questions. What particular measures would you like to have taken to achieve which goals? I’ll be honest, and tell you (as far as I know) if it’s possible or not, why, and what the most likely results will be. Some of it may not what you want to hear, and some of it may not be something I’m in favour of (nor happy to admit :)), but I’ll try to explain the possibilities and impossibilities to you here.

    As for SOPA/PIPA: part of it started with the request to add DNS blocking to the list of measures, and the unwillingness to accept that DNS blocking and DNSSEC (secure (encrypted) DNS) are not compatible.

    • As as been my position all along, if there is a legitimate, technical concern with a given approach to blocking, then what do Google, et al. offer other than PR telling people how good piracy is? My point is that there is no good-faith effort on the tech side (and there never has been) in this regard, but it seems addressing issues where they have no choice (e.g. complying with local laws) is possible. I’m a layman, neither qualified nor interested in talking the details of how DNS etc. work, but when I hear the most monopolistic, wealthiest, and advanced company say, “We can’t,” I’m more than a little skeptical.

      • I can understand that, but when experts like Paul Vixie carefully elaborate why DNS blocking and DNSSEC cannot work together, why are they called liars by people who have no knowledge of technological matters whatsoever? They have no stake in copyright infringement.

        Still, bring on the questions. I’ll try to answer them openly and honestly as best I can.

      • First of all, who called Vixie a liar, someone official, or just someone in the general noise? Second, I had to dig in my notes regarding the Manager’s Amendment addressing DNS and offer the pasted info below for your response. Finally, asking me for a technological solution to the problem is like me asking someone who’s never seen film equipment how best to light a scene. My point is that trillions of transactions happen every day, and these companies work wonders when there is money to be made or there are mandates to be met. Google owns most of search and most of advertising worldwide. If its 2011 profits included .05% from illegal activity, that’s about $200 million. It’s my opinion that it’s their responsibility, but I don’t think they feel that way. If they did, their PR wouldn’t be based on free speech.

        All that said, it doesn’t seem that difficult in contrast to what, say, Amazon tracks in one Christmas season, to devise a means to starve torrent sites of their revenue streams.

        The Manager’s Amendment addresses the specific security arguments raised by Mr. Black by prohibiting court orders that would require redirection of users who try to gain access to unlawful content, thus avoiding any impact on DNSSEC. The amendment also establishes the following additional safeguards to ensure there is no adverse impact on the DNS:
        · Includes a rule of construction that disallows a court from issuing an order that would harm the DNS.
        · Directs courts to modify orders before they are carried out by service providers if it is shown that carrying out the original order would have a detrimental impact on the DNS or network security.
        · Commissions an inter-agency expert study on any impact of the bill’s remedies on the DNS.

      • Several representatives said that they were “not a nerd”, but they believed the concerns could not be true. The same was said by representatives from the MPAA/RIAA.

        I also find it odd that the industry has no trouble if 3% of the DMCA notices are faulty, but apparently 0.05% of the revenue being from illegal sources is unacceptable?

        I’m sorry, but I wasn’t impressed by the manager’s amendment. Basically it made the whole thing the problem of the ISPs, by letting them select the “least burdensome measure”. To say on one side that they should apply DNS blocking, but on the other side say that such should not cause DNS problems is placing a huge problem on the shoulders of the ISPs since DNS blocking and DNSSEC simply don’t go together.

        Still, I’d been hoping for some more direct questions. Questions like:
        – Why doesn’t Google do this? or
        – If they can filter this, then why can’t they filter this? or
        – What about this technique I read about?
        Perhaps it would help people understand a bit more about the technological problems behind certain “obvious” solutions. Or as Mencken wrote: Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.

      • I love Mencken, and you win kudos from me, Pieter, for quoting him. My point, however, is that the circular logic is that the experts are saying “this can’t be done,” and I say “I don’t believe you,” and the response is, “then tell us how you would do it.” This leaves the layman (in this case me) with the choice of making up something out of whole cloth or surrendering. The problem is that I’m an American, and as such, I am used to corporations crying “impossible,” “anti-free-trade,” “anti-speech,” etc. whenever my government prepares to impose some restriction to their practices for the common good. We see it with manufacturing and environmental issues, with financial markets and regulation (look how that worked), and now it’s web companies with piracy, child porn, security, and other criminal activity. Call me crazy, but part of me thinks the way the German government did with regard to recycling cars — “Here’s the law, now figure it out.” And like magic, BMW et al figured it out.

        Still, I did ask a layman’s question, which was whether or not you see a practical means to starve torrents of their revenue stream. I won’t presume to know the mechanism, only the goal. I find it hard to believe that all the brains in Google can’t figure out a solution.

  • You have to admit though that if you have a problem, and you can’t or don’t trust the experts that you have two problems, neh? 🙂 Why not ask some experts not affiliated with companies like Google? Many technological engineers I know will give you a straight and honest answer, even if the answer doesn’t suit them.

    With regards to normal copyright infringement, just look at a company like Microsoft, and how much they invest in TPM/DRM solutions to keep their own works from being infringed. How successful are they really? If they cannot even protect their own works, why do you believe them when they tell you they can protect yours? Fortunes have been spent on finding the best TPM/DRM solutions, and the results are practically 0 so far. Any reasonable engineer could have told (and actually did tell) you that this was a fruitless exercise, but nobody listened.

    So with regards to your layman’s question, I have a counter question: What is the problem you’re trying to solve? Are you trying to prevent companies from making money on infringement or are you trying to prevent people from infringing your works? In some cases, e.g. sites like RapidShare and MegaUpload, this would be the same problem, but due to the size of torrents and server bandwidth needs for torrents this doesn’t hold true for torrent sites. Also, let us not forget that RapidShare (and therefore not unlikely MegaUpload as well) is probably legal under current US law. If the US courts do not find RapidShare guilty of copyright infringement, what right do you have to deny them their revenue streams?

    • Regarding the trust issue, I’m merely pointing to the fact that asking companies to self-regulate when there’s money to be made is asking the fox to watch the chicken coop. Regardless, you’ve shifted the technical question to a legal hypothetical — what if Megaupload is legal? For the purposes of answering the question, though, let’s not get into that. This was about “breaking the Internet.” Assume, we agree that the torrents I list are guilty of mass copyright infringement and that they make their money primarily through advertising paid for and sold via U.S. companies. And I say this revenue stream needs to be cut off. This doesn’t sound technologically complicated, but then I’m not a code writer.

      • Oh, I certainly agree that trusting companies to self-regulate is foolish. I just wish we could convince the politicians of that as well. 🙂

        The ways to cut off revenue streams to sites like MegaUpload is not a technological one: simply make it illegal for payment companies to do business with them. The questions are:

        1. Should we put such obligations on (unrelated) third parties?

        This is not a simple legal question. It creates all sorts of subquestions, like: Why only payment companies? Why not companies that sell computer(component)s? Why not electrical companies? Why not food companies? In short: which companies are still allowed to do business with these sites, and why? Also: who should bear the cost for this?

        2. Who decides which companies should fall into this boycott group?

        Now this is a rather complicated issue. We’re basically talking about punishing foreign companies for not complying with domestic law. When China does the same to US companies, we cry foul! From an international standpoint, this could have serious consequences.

        And then there’s due process, which caused parts of the SOPA/PIPA protests:
        – Can we put companies in this boycott group based on a complaint?
        – Can we put companies in this boycott group based on a decision by the government?
        – Can we put companies in this boycott group based on an ex-parte decision by a judge?
        – Can we force a foreign company to stand trial in the US to avoid being put in this boycott group?
        – What must a company do to be removed from this boycott group?
        In short: who decides under which circumstances a company can be put into or taken out of this boycott group?

        That also makes it rather important whether or not a company is legal under US law. If the entertainment industry had its way, RapidShare and even YouTube would already be in this boycott group…

      • For starters, most politicians, for better or worse, are not so naive on that subject as many people think. Still, to your points:

        Many of the businesses profiting from the torrent traffic are U.S. businesses (advertisers, payment processors, Google), and are therefore absolutely fair game under U.S. law. There is no gray area with regard to allowing one business to profit from the exploitation of another business. There is, however, plenty of precedent for the idea that a corporation or even an individual can bare responsibility for contributing to a crime, even unknowingly. If toxins end up in my food product supply chain, I bare a degree of responsibility that will entirely depend on whether or not I’ve been diligent in my practices to protect that chain. If I’m clean, I’m probably not liable; if I’ve been careless, I’m somewhat liable; if I’m aware of the problem, I’m criminally negligent. You seem to be assuming the premise would be different in the context we’re discussing.

        Regardless, I disagree that the legal remedy you suggest is the best or only solution. This is really very simple as I see it. Foreign-based torrent sites exploit US workers (that’s what it amounts to) by hijacking their revenue stream, distributing their product (much of it back to US consumers), and selling advertising to US businesses who pay another US business for the ad service that happens to be the same US business that provides search tools for accessing the exploited work in the first place. Those are the facts without exaggeration. All this other legalistic parsing, much of it being done by non-lawyers, is playing games. And when those games fail to impress people like judges, then the argument shifts to, “Well, torrents are actually legal, torrents are good for business, torrents are good for culture” and so on. And when that doesn’t work, the argument shifts to the consumer and everyone cries “free speech.”

        You asked me to ask you for a hypothetical, technical solution to the problem. Instead, you offered a straw man legal proposal and then proceeded to tear it down. Forgive me, Pieter, I enjoy these thought exercises, but I’m guessing you’re roughly as qualified to offer a legal remedy as I am to offer a technological one. I’ve done a lot of these threads and chats where everyone presumes to have knowledge beyond their skill set, as though the fact that we have keyboards and social media, means we’ve all suddenly done 4 years of law school. I don’t direct this at you personally. You’re obviously a bright guy, and I like talking to you. But I really am interested in changing the dialogue and in admitting that I am neither a lawyer nor a technologist (there are plenty of blogs for that). I’m an artist and a citizen with a pretty sound knowledge of history and culture, and I try to look at things from that point of view. It’s not that I can’t answer each of your points, but I do wonder about the value of two laymen extending this thread to thousands of words, debating purely hypothetical details that are utterly out of our spheres of expertise.

        The post I wrote does not propose a technological solution, but it does stem from my uniformly applied scrutiny of all companies, not just certain ones. Citizen to citizen, as a general principle, I ask anyone whether or not it seems reasonable to doubt Google as much as one doubts NBC Universal, for instance. And does history not suggest that most industries will use PR and lobbying to foster a climate that serves their interests? And does history not suggest that industries will use hyperbole in the public to serve those interests?

  • I’ll readily admit that I do not hold a degree in law, but I’ve been involved in the construction of copyright law since the introduction of the EUCD (so about 12 years now), so I generally don’t have a huge problem reading and understanding copyright law. I also hold a masters degree in computer science, and have been working as an ASIC designer in the telecom industry for about 15 years now, so I also feel comfortable discussing technological matters. In my spare time, I’m a musician, but since that hardly feeds my family I guess my views are different from yours. 🙂

    My “straw man” legal proposal, is basically directly from SOPA/PIPA, in which a company could file a complaint with the government, and the government could get an ex-parte order from a judge to force payment companies to stop doing business with certain foreign companies. The tearing down was to give you some insight as to why so many companies (that usually can’t agree on anything) came together to fight SOPA/PIPA.

    Remember that your layman question was regarding removing funding from infringing sites. I’ll assume they’re foreign, otherwise you could use domestic copyright law to sue them directly. As said: removing funding from foreign sites is not a technological problem. There’s not some algorithm to develop that can determine which companies should no longer receive funding, be that direct or via advertisements. So, it comes down to law, and you’ll need a clear legal definition of the conditions under which a site should be cut from its funding, and the international complications of enacting such a law.

    Now I understand your artist’s point of view on these matters; I’m against copyright infringement as well. The problem remains that you need a clear definition of law, which needs to be acceptable to society (pesky democracy and all), which actually accomplishes its goal with minimal to no collateral damage, because you can be assured that both proponents and opponents will be using every hyperbole in the book to get their wishes.

    In addition to law, in some cases technology can play a role as well, like e.g. YouTube’s ContentID system. Such solutions have their limitations though (which I’ll gladly explain), and of course their own set of collateral damage problems (which I’ll also gladly explain). Now whether such limitations and collateral damage are acceptable is a different discussion, but I’m mostly here to explain their existence.

    A simple example question (that pops up far too often) would e.g. be: If we can filter spam, then why can’t we do the same for copyright infringement?

    Only once you understand the limits and cost of technology can you hold a proper discussion on their appliance to solve a certain problem. There’s no magic wand to be waved to make all the bad stuff go away I’m afraid, but if there’s a technological solution I’ll explain its effectiveness and limitations, even if I don’t like its possibility for abuse.

    • Although that analysis of SOPA is not quite accurate. The complaint must be focused on a foreign site dedicated to infringement, and a false claim carried stiff penalties. The due process criticisms (and now I’m dredging up month’s old memories) generally amounted to obscure hypotheticals as an excuse to throw out the bills and then the premise for the bills. This was then translated to the general public, like American high school kids who don’t know anything, as “any site anywhere can be taken down for without cause.” It’s entirely misleading and, again, represents that there is and was no good-faith desire to address the problem. So, pesky democracy is fine, but the general public that protested these bills didn’t have a clue what it was protesting, and it was a bad day for representative government. Not a big fan of direct democracy; it’s a form of chaos.

      Good luck enacting any law that does not have the potential for abuse or bad interpretations. I doubt we have many of those on the books, but we’re not throwing them out either. Let’s be honest and admit that the Web industry does not agree that there ought to be a legal or a technological remedy, that what they want is to promote a new legal environment in which copyright doesn’t exist, in which piracy is embraced as a new paradigm. Google wants to own every bit of data it can grab, and there is nothing about its business practices that suggests otherwise.

      • I think we’ve covered part of this discussion before: SOPA/PIPA were so badly written that foreign sites like MegaUpload and RapidShare wouldn’t even fall within its scope. On another note though: can you point me to the articles of the bills where it generates stiff penalties for false claims for I do not remember them?

        I do agree however that both opponents and proponents either had no idea of what was in the law, or they deliberately created false claims to serve their own interests. The entertainment industry just has such a bad PR record that people tend to distrust them automatically.

        I’m not sure I agree with you on your view of the Web industry though. The problem is that beyond technological solutions like Content ID (which works for a site like YouTube, but wouldn’t work for e.g. RapidShare) the needed investment is huge (if at all possible) while the impact on copyright infringement is practically 0 (or in the case of TPM/DRM sometimes leads to MORE infringement) and/or the collateral damage is huge, so companies are very likely to oppose such laws.

        What’s more troubling though is this:
        While it may be possible (at a cost) to stop the companies that currently profit from copyright infringement, it’s almost impossible to stop copyright infringement itself. We’ve been fighting online copyright infringement since the Napster days, and can we honestly say that we’ve managed to reduce it? Now consider that online copyright infringement still pales to offline copyright infringement, and perhaps conclude with me that we may need to find an alternative system to copyright to make sure artists get paid for the actions of natural persons.

        IMHO, copyright works quite well between companies. It’s enforcement against natural persons where it gets really complicated; next to impossible even. Personally I wouldn’t be opposed to legalise the whole thing in return for levies or a tax, and forget we ever wasted so much time and money trying to find a solution that doesn’t exist.

      • Pieter, I’ll try to get to a more detailed response later, but I have to get onto the day’s business. You put your finger on one point — that the general view of the entertainment industry PR is actually outdated, and the view of tech industry in this regard is somewhat nascent. More on this later. I also think you’re looking at copyright solely in terms of compensation and not in the context of the author’s right to choose the path for his/her work. Regardless, thanks for the conversation so far.

      • I’m looking forward to it. 🙂

        I honestly believe that the entertainment industry has done artists a disservice by ever increasing both scope and duration of copyright over the last 3-4 decades. I think it’s really reduced the respect people have for copyright in general.

        With regards to the context of the author’s right to choose the path for his/her work: it’s not that you and I do not agree on this view. IMHO however it’s practically impossible to enforce this behaviour against natural persons, and it’s only getting harder. How does one enforce copyright against natural persons when all of history’s books fit on a USB stick? How long before all of history’s music will fit on one? How long before you can carry all movies ever made on a portable HD?

        Sometimes there’s a (huge) gap between what we want, and what we can achieve. In such cases, we should look for alternatives to get at least part of what we want, and in this particular case I focused on compensation.

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