Why I’m Scared of the SOPA bill

Benetech, is a leading nonprofit organization based in Silicon Valley. We write software for people with disabilities as well as human rights and environmental groups. We’re against piracy, and have made commitments to authors and publishers to encourage compliance with copyright law.

So, we shouldn’t have anything to fear from a bill entitled “Stop Online Piracy Act,” right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

We’re getting very worried that our organization and the people we serve: people with print disabilities (i.e., people who are blind or severely dyslexic), and human rights groups will be collateral damage in Hollywood’s attempt to break the Internet in their latest effort to squash “piracy.” And, if we’re worried, a lot of other good organizations should start getting worried! Let me give two specific examples that came up in my first conversation with a lawyer about the proposed bill:

1. Stopping fund raising and subscription revenue for Bookshare, the largest online library for people who have print disabilities.

Bookshare is an online library for people who can’t read standard print books. We provide accessible ebooks that can be spoken aloud, turned into Braille or large print. We serve over 150,000 students with disabilities alone with free online services funded by the Department of Education (however, nothing contained in this post has anything to do with our funders). We also have thousands of adults with disabilities that pay a $50 a year subscription to be able to download all the books and newspapers they can read. Ironically, many of these users might buy commercial ebooks, but the anti-piracy technology built into many ebook systems are not compatible with the technology these users employ to get the books in Braille or synthetic speech.

Bookshare is legal in the United States because our copyright law includes an exception that allows nonprofit organizations like Benetech to make accessible versions of books for people with print disabilities without requesting permission or paying a royalty.

We frequently get emails or letters from authors, agents or publishers who don’t know much about people with disabilities or about Section 121 of the copyright law, calling us pirates and asking us to cease and desist from making their books available on the Internet. Often, these communications come in the form of what’s called a DMCA or take-down notice. Now, we have a nice little letter thanking them, explaining that we only help people with bona fide disabilities, that it’s legal, that we’ve worked with the big publishing associations and with authors groups, and wouldn’t they like to help us in the future by adding more of their books voluntarily to our collection. Most of the time, that works great, and we end up making a new friend after they dig a little and find out that we are closer to Florence Nightingale than the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Sometimes, we have to spend time talking a newbie lawyer down from high dudgeon and explaining that there really are such things as exceptions and limitations in copyright, and do they really want to have their client be the first author to attack the rights of blind people to be able to get Braille? And then they go away. Because that’s a lawsuit they are unlikely to win, and it would be a professional error to waste their client’s money attacking a library doing legal things.

However, SOPA apparently has shoot first, ask questions later provisions. If any single publisher or author of any one of the more than 130,000 accessible books in our library gets antsy, they can send a notice to VISA and MasterCard and say, stop money from going to Benetech and Bookshare. No more donations to our charity. No more subscriptions from individual adults with disabilities.

No need to send us a letter. Or file a DMCA notice. Or do any real research. Just send out a bunch of notices and get all those pirates! Except, we’re not pirates. But, now the burden of proof has shifted to us: we’re presumed guilty, and we have to spent time and money defending ourselves. Sounds kind of un-American, doesn’t it?

Now, apparently, we can file a counter-notice. But, my guess is that the credit card guys are going to play it safe and stay away from turning “pirates” back on, and we’d end up in court arguing to be able to get our ability to receive funds for our socially beneficial work, not only to help people with disabilities but also our work to help environmental and human rights groups.

Yet another example of bills written to catch criminals, that do very little to stop them, but end up screwing up law-abiding organizations.

2. Endangering Human Rights Activists.

Benetech is one of the largest developers of software for human rights activists around the world. We develop free and open source software to help groups capture the stories of human rights abuse, and store and back them up securely in another country. Wonderful stuff. We work all over the world, and our Martus software has been translated into Spanish, French, Russian, Arabic, Khmer and other languages.

The U.S. Department of State just funded us to help LGBT groups in Uganda securely capture documentation of abuses against those communities (again, our funders are not responsible for this post). We work in North Africa Latin America, Asia: most of the places where large scale human rights abuses are going on. And, in many of these places, we’re helping the activists avoid censorship and surveillance by the government. It’s also crucially important to be able to assure the confidentiality of witnesses and victims both to protect their privacy (i.e., victims of sexual violence) and their safety (do you want the police to know that you have testified to an illegal killing by the police?).

So, another example of potential collateral damage from SOPA. The problem is that we provide technology that allows for security, privacy and circumvention. We do it for human rights groups. But, when asked if we know whether or not there are “pirated” copyrighted materials, we can’t say. Because, if we make software that promises to keep your life or death sensitive information secret to the best of our abilities, we won’t build a back door in for Syria, or China, or the U.S. government or even (heavens!) Hollywood.

Apparently, one of the provisions of SOPA is that technology and servers and websites that can be used for evading controls on piracy can be shut down by the Attorney General. Unfortunately, safeguarding human rights information can’t be distinguished from piracy, if the contents are encrypted. So, our software, and the TOR network servers we and others operate, and other similar technologies, can get shut down in the name of protecting Hollywood.

Let's Not Do This Stupid Thing, and Avoid Breaking the Internet

In conclusion, I can’t imagine that breaking the Internet, making charities waste money fighting thoughtless and careless allegations, and making it easier for repressive governments to suppress human rights groups, was what was intended when this bill was drafted. Our concerns are just one set out of many. Engineers have described this bill as “breaking the Internet,” because complying with it requires major (and not good) changes in how the Internet works today. Most tech companies think this is the most counter-productive job and innovation killing bill they've seen in years. And, tons of human rights groups have protested against the U.S. starting to act more like China than the home of the free. The costs and impacts far outweigh any (unlikely) benefit Hollywood would receive. Let’s not do this as a country.

Background information:

Electronic Frontier Foundation has great information on SOPA and related bills, including this one: SOPA: Hollywood Finally Gets A Chance to Break the Internet. If you're so moved, here's where EFF points you to taking action by contacting your elected representatives: Take Action | Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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