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Internet’s Founding Architects: Latest U.S. Senate Effort To Block Online Pirates Will Instigate Internet Chaos

SAN FRANCISCO, November 18th, 2010 — The U.S. Senate’s latest battle plan against intellectual property piracy online could gain traction and be approved by the body’s Judiciary Committee Thursday, but a large group of the internet’s founding architects are warning that the plan’s technical approach would wreak havoc and destabilize the global network.

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MIT Professor David P. Reed is one of the 89 internet pioneers who told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday that a Hollywood-championed bill targeting online pirates is fatally flawed. The committee could vote to approve the legislation on Thursday. Photo by Joi Ito.

SAN FRANCISCO, November 18th, 2010 — The U.S. Senate’s latest battle plan against intellectual property piracy online could gain traction and be approved by the body’s Judiciary Committee Thursday, but a large group of the internet’s founding architects are warning that the plan’s technical approach would wreak havoc and destabilize the global network.

The group includes many of the pioneering engineers who designed the fundamental protocols and standards that gave birth to the internet and the web, and which makes up its DNA today.

The group of 89 network engineers and internet visionaries sent a dramatically-worded letter to all of the Senate Judiciary members on Tuesday warning that the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act would cause chaos because people would simply set up alternative ways to look up domain names “outside the control of U.S. service providers, but easily used by American citizens.”

“Errors and divergences will appear between these new services and the current global [domain name system,] and contradictory addresses will confuse browsers and frustrate the people using them,” they added. “These problems will be widespread and will affect sites other than those blacklisted by the American government.”

The bill is question is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, but it enjoys bipartisan support of 17 other senators.

Among other things, its goal is to enable the Justice Department to expedite the process of ordering registries and registrars to block access to domain names of web sites that the U.S. attorney general deems are dedicated to piracy.

The bill would also enable Justice to use the court order against enabling third parties, such as internet service providers, payment processors and online ad networks. The list of blocked sites would also be posted online by the White House intellectual property czar.

Leahy, a strong, long-time advocate of the entertainment industry, and no technophobe himself, first introduced the bill in late September. So far there’s been no hearing to air the concerns voiced by the internet community.

The Vermont Democrat said upon the bill’s introduction that it would provide Justice with an important new tool, but he didn’t explain what exactly it would do. Justice has already launched successful domain name blocking campaigns against pirate web sites.

The engineers’ Tuesday letter reflects a growing schism between themselves and other advocates of the open internet and other powerful members of the internet community whose industries are being dramatically reshaped by both digital technology and unfettered global piracy.

The engineers’ ethos of openness is a fundamental design principle packed into the protocols of the internet. But the ethos baked into the software code of the global internet infrastructure is having a hard time accommodating the needs of the rest of the world that’s taken shape online, creating the long-standing debates over how the global network should be managed. Those debates have manifested themselves through the net-neutrality debate and constant and ongoing debates in legislatures across the world over the nature and extent of individuals’ anonymity, the role of intermediaries, and how illegal behavior should be tracked online.

In the United States, the technology and entertainment communities, such as in this case, usually talk past one another and don’t squarely address each others’ concerns.

For example, in addition to the potential chaos of the senate bill’s current approach, the engineers have also voiced a concern about censorship, giving short shrift to the idea that blocking content could be limited to blatantly illegal activities.

For its part, the Motion Picture Association of America’s interim chief Bob Pisano on Tuesday wrote an editorial in The Hill that emphasized the destructive nature of online piracy. But he didn’t address the technical aspects of the current legislation under consideration, and why it would improve law enforcement authorities’ enforcement powers dramatically enough to justify risking the destabilizing the internet’s addressing system.

Sarah Lai Stirland was Contributing Editor for BroadbandBreakfast.com until April 2011. She has covered business, finance and legal affairs, telecommunications and tech policy for 15 years from New York, Washington and San Francisco. She has written for Red Herring, National Journal's Technology Daily, Portfolio.com and Wired.com. She's a native of London and Hong Kong, and is currently based in San Francisco.

Copyright

Public Knowledge Celebrates 20 Years of Helping Congress Get a Clue on Digital Rights

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Screenshot of Gigi Sohn from Public Knowledge's 20th anniversary event

February 27, 2021 – The non-profit advocacy group Public Knowledge celebrated its twentieth anniversary year in a Monday event revolving around the issues that the group has made its hallmark: Copyright, open standards and other digital rights issues.

Group Founder Gigi Sohn, now a Benton Institute for Broadband and Society senior fellow and public advocate, said that through her professional relationship with Laurie Racine, now president of Racine Strategy, that she became “appointed and anointed” to help start the interest group.

Together with David Bollier, who also had worked on public interest projects in broadcast media with Sohn, and is now director of Reinventing the Commons program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, the two cofounded a small and scrappy Public Knowledge that has become a non-profit powerhouse.

The secret sauce? Timing, which couldn’t have been better, said Sohn. Being given free office space at DuPont Circle at the New America Foundation by Steve Clemmons and the late Ted Halstead, then head of the foundation, was instrumental in Public Knowledge’s launch.

The cofounders met with major challenges, Sohn and others said. The nationwide tragedy of September 11, 2001, occurred weeks after its official founding. The group continued their advocacy of what was then more commonly known as “open source,” a related grandparent to the new “net neutrality” of today, she said.

In the aftermath of September 11, a bill by the late Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, D-S.C., demonstrated a bid by large copyright interest to force technology companies to effectively be the copyright police. Additional copyright maximalist measures we launched almost every month, she said.

Public Knowledge grew into something larger than was probably imagined by the three co-founders. Still, they shared setbacks and losses that accompanied their successes and wins.

“We would form alliances with anybody, which meant that sometimes we sided with internet service providers [on issues like copyright] and sometimes we were against them [on issues like telecom],” said Sohn. An ingredient in the interest group’s success was its desire to work with everyone.

Congress didn’t have a clue on digital rights

What drove the trio together was a shared view that “Congress had no vision for the future of the internet,” explained Sohn.

Much of our early work was spend explaining how digitation works to Congress, she said. The 2000s were a time of great activity and massive growth in the digital industry and lawmakers at the Hill were not acquainted well with screens, computers, and the internet. They took on the role of explaining to members of Congress what the interests of their constituents were when it came to digitization.

Public Knowledge helped popularize digital issues and by “walking [digital information] across the street to [Capitol Hill] at the time created an operational reality with digitization,” said Bollier.

Racine remarked about the influence Linux software maker Red Hat had during its 2002 initial public offering. She said the founders of Red Hat pushed open source beyond a business model and into a philosophy in ways that hadn’t been done before.

During the early days of Public Knowledge, all sorts of legacy tech was being rolled out. Apple’s iTunes, Windows XP, and the first Xbox launched. Nokia and Sony were the leaders in cellphones at the time, augmenting the rise of technology in the coming digital age.

Racine said consumers needed someone in Washington who could represent their interests amid the new software and hardware and embrace the idea of open source technologies for the future.

Also speaking at the event was Public Knowledge CEO Chris Lewis, who said Public Knowledge was at the forefront of new technology issues as it was already holding 3D printing symposiums before Congress, something totally unfamiliar at the time.

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In Google v. Oracle, Supreme Court Hears Landmark Fair Use Case on Software Copyright

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Photo of Tom Goldstein from the Peabody Award used with permission

October 12, 2020 – The Supreme Court on Wednesday publicly struggled with the copyrightability of software in a uniquely contested case between Google and Oracle, the outcome of which could play a significant role in the future of software development in the United States.

The oral arguments were the culmination of a battle that started 10 years ago, when tech company Oracle accused Google of illegally copying its code. Oracle owns the copyright to the Java application programming interface that Google utilized to establish a new mobile operating system.

The company has sued Google for more than $9 billion in damages.

Yet Google claimed a “fair use” defense to its copying. Google copied less than 1 percent of the Java code. Even though the law generally treats computer programs as copyrightable, Google’s attorney before the Supreme Court, Thomas Goldstein, said that by adapting Oracle’s code to serve a different purpose, Google’s use was “transformational,” and entitled to fair use protections.

Goldstein said that this form of unlicensed copying is completely standard in software, and saves developers time and lowers barriers to innovation.

He referenced a famous Supreme Court precedent about public domain works, Baker v. Selden, which in 1880 declared that once information is published to the public, the public has a right to use it.

“Google had the right to do this,” said Goldstein.

Still, Oracle attorney Joshua Rosenkranz asserted that the Java code is an expressive work eligible for copyright protections. Rosenkranz further argued that Google’s use of the code was not transformational.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared to suggest that jurors in the lower court case properly found Google’s use to be transformational because it took the APIs from a desktop environment to smartphones.

“Interfaces have been reused for decades,” said Goldstein. Google had to reuse Oracle’s code to respond to interoperability demands.

“It has always been the understanding that this purely functional, non-creative code that is essentially the glue that keeps computer programs together could be reused, and it would upend that world to rule the other way,” he said.

Supreme Court observers said that the high court appeared leaning toward upholding the 2016 jury verdict vindicating Google’s fair use defense.

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Copyright

Fair Use is Essential But its Enforcement is Broken, Says Senate Intellectual Property Subcommittee

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Screenshot of Grammy-winning recording artist Yolanda Adams from the hearing

July 28, 2020 — “Fair use” is an essential doctrine of copyright law that is unevenly applied, said participants in a Senate Intellectual Property Subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

The hearing, “How Does the DMCA Contemplate Limitations and Exceptions Like Fair Use,” saw participants discuss whether the Digital Millennium Copyright Act still permits fair uses of copyrighted content that would be otherwise infringing.

The DMCA, passed in 1998, criminalizes the manufacture, sale or other distribution of technologies designed to decrypt encoded copyrighted material. This ban on anti-circumvention tools does not appear to account for fair use.

The fair use exception to copyright law allows the republication or redistribution of copyrighted works for commentary, criticism or educational purposes without having to obtain permission from the copyright holder.

However, Joseph Gratz, partner at Durie Tangri, said that fair use often clearly applies but is not enforced, leaving users of the legally obtained content to deal with automated content censors.

“Fair use depends on context, and machines can’t consider context,” he said. “A video, for example, that incidentally captures a song playing in the background at a political rally or a protest is clearly fair use but may be detected by an automated filter.”

When an automated filter detects a song on a platform like YouTube, it redirects advertising revenue from the creator of the video to the creator of the song, often erroneously.

Rick Beato, who owns a music education YouTube channel with over one-and-a-half million subscribers, said that he does not receive ad revenue from hundreds of his videos.

“One of my recent videos called ‘The Mixolydian Mode’ was manually claimed by Sony ATV because I played ten seconds of a Beatles song on my acoustic guitar to demonstrate how the melody is derived from the scale,” he said. “This is an obvious example of fair use, I would argue.”

Grammy-winning recording artist Yolanda Adams testified that she sees the problems of fair use employment as about more than simply receiving money.

“As a gospel artist, I’m not just an entertainer,” she said. “I see my mission as using my gift to spread the gospel — so for me, fair use is not just about money. It’s about access.”

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