Monday, December 12, 2011

SOPA Could Put Common Library Software in the Soup

The "Stop Online Piracy Act", or SOPA, is promoted as something that will... stop online piracy. So I was a bit surprised when I learned how it's supposed to work. A key provision of SOPA will shut down "notorious" websites by setting up a national web filter based on domain names. I'm sure the pirates had a great laugh about that one. They'll be the ones benefiting while the rest of us figure out how to avoid collateral damage. Members of Congress should consult the nearest available 14-year-old on the ease of web filter evasion: school teachers in my town routinely access their filter-blocked Facebook accounts by asking students to show them how it's done.

Rerouting domain names to alternate IP addresses is pretty easy to do, and can be very useful as well. One type of software used to accomplish this is called a "proxy server". It's called that because it acts as your web browser's proxy in requesting files from a web site. For example, after connecting to a proxy server in Stockholm, my requests for web pages would appear to issue from a computer in Sweden instead of from my computer in New Jersey.

Libraries often use proxy servers to simplify IP authentication of their networks to digital information providers. When an academic library buys access to a database, for example, they'll give the IP address of their proxy-server to the database provider, which then puts the IP address on an "allow" list. Then everyone at the school accesses the database through the address of the proxy server. In effect, those proxy-authenticated users circumvent the IP address-based filter that blocks unauthorized users.

Passage of SOPA would inevitably spawn the creation of a network of proxy servers hosted in countries that reject filtering of the internet. Users in the US could then connect transparently to  blocked sites by connecting through a constantly shifting network of proxy servers. The key to that connection would be a Proxy Auto-config, or PAC file- essentially a mini DNS file installed in the user's web browser software.

SOPA contains provisions that allow the US Attorney General to
bring an action for injunctive relief against any entity that knowingly and willfully provides or offers to provide a product or service designed or marketed for the circumvention or bypassing of [domain name blocking] and taken in response to a court order issued pursuant to this subsection, to enjoin such entity from interfering with the order by continuing to provide or offer to provide such product or service.
Proxy servers meet the condition of being designed to route around filters and therefore fall into the category of services that could be subject to injunctive action under SOPA. The proxy servers most frequently used in libraries are OCLC's EZProxy and the open-source software known as SQUID, but there are many others in use.

In particular, SQUID makes use of PAC files, and thus could be vulnerable if the Justice Department decides that PAC files make it too easy to evade SOPA blockages. Conceivably, the Justice department could force browser developers to omit support for PAC files, or perhaps to restrict their transmission.

Similar concerns about important software have been raised by Jim Fruchterman on behalf of Benetech, a non-profit that among other things, provides ebooks to the reading disabled. Benetech is also one of the largest developers of software for human rights activists around the world. They operate TOR servers designed to foster anonymous communications. On Beneblog, Fruchterman worries that Benetech services could be impacted by SOPA. In response, a commenter signing in as "Copyright Alliance" argues that such action would be unlikely because "The State Department is strongly committed to advancing both Internet freedom and the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights on the Internet." Too bad it's the Justice Department that gets to decide which services constitute circumvention.

I don't think that libraries will have their proxy servers taken away anytime soon, even if SOPA is enacted. But it's likely that the widespread development of SOPA-circumventing infrastructure would degrade the ability of rights holders to find and prosecute copyright violators. Knowledge of the actual locations of unauthorized files would by hidden offshore in distributed proxy servers, completely out of the reach of US law enforcement. The "file lockers" of today would dissolve into ungraspable bit vapors, and the online piracy problem would just get worse and worse.

There are many ways to address the online piracy problem- too many to list in this post. My own company is working on a piracy-neutering business model for ebooks. I don't know enough to evaluate the possible effectiveness of the payment and advertising network components of SOPA. But it appears to me that from the technical point of view, the internet filter component of SOPA will be a charm of powerful trouble, like a hell-broth, boil and bubble.

  1. @amac has a good post on SOPA's scope issues, as well as links to other articles.
  2. I focus here on SOPA, but there are similar issues with PROTECT IP, as described by Steve Crocker and 4 other prominent internet engineers.
  3. The Crocker paper describes a number of other ways that domain name filtering might be circumvented. These include using replacing .hosts files on the user's computer (similar to PAC file installation) and switching the user to using a non-filtered DNS server. Apparently this is done transparently by some types of computer malware. This can only end badly.

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1 comment:

  1. *headdesk*

    I just can't imagine how such wholly moronic laws get so close to being passed without someone who has a clue raising a red flag somewhere along the way. Srsly. Does the DoJ not know and programmers? Who designed this thing? Marketing executives? Third-graders?

    It really does sometimes feel as though the USA is bent on reducing itself to a third-world country. (Not that the UK is much better.)