SOPA/PIPA looms over Singapore

Donaldson Tan

SOPA/PIPA threatens internet services that depend on user-generated content.

Last Thursday, Law Minister K Shanmugam dropped a bombshell during the launch of “The Mortal Enemy”, the winning trailer for The Originals Get Reel Contest organised by the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS). He revealed that the government is in discussion with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) over the issue of piracy and measures discussed include blocking websites that host pirated materials and setting up a voluntary regime involving Internet Service Providers.

Remarkably, these measures are similar to a pair of controversial draft American legislations known as the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and Protect the IP Act (PIPA). Given MPAA is one of the key proponents behind SOPA/PIPA in the United States, it appears that MPAA is promoting SOPA/PIPA-like legislation in Singapore. In the US, SOPA/PIPA has attracted widespread objection from key technology players which include Google, Yahoo and Facebook. A number of websites, including Wikipedia and Reddit, are expected to “black out” later today as a protest manoeuvre.

As a state party to the United States Free Trade Agreement (USFTA) and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), Singapore is obligated to enact similar laws should SOPA/PIPA become law. As such, Singapore cannot be isolated from legal developments in the United States. It would be naive and foolhardy to ignore such legal developments or to sit on the fence because one should not interfere with domestic politics of another country.

The perils of SOPA/PIPA are well-documented. On the economic front, it would stifle internet innovation. This is achieved through re-assignment of liability regarding copyright infringement. Under existing arrangement, companies are protected from charges of “contributory infringement” on content uploaded by users as long as the company follows up with the process of removing the content which infringes copyright when an alert process is signalled.

However, under SOPA/PIPA, companies and the internet service providers (ISP) have to monitor users and pro-actively remove infringed content or they may face charges of “contributory infringement”. It would raise the cost of participation on these sites for all users worldwide, and could force many social media projects to shut down, especially smaller websites and businesses.

Content creation certainly does not occur in a vacuum. The situation is further compounded by what can be construed as copyright infringement. Hundreds of thousands of fan videos and artworks, video mash-ups, mixes, re-arrangement and other derivative works are all at risk. Online content creators who flourished outside content cartels due to the reach of the internet (e.g. Jayesslee) would be under threat now. The lobbying effort by American corporate interest groups such as MPAA is a clear example of rent-seeking behaviour by content cartels.

To make matters worse, SOPA/PIPA grants the the US Attorney-General power to order ISPs to block access to the offending website, impose search engines to de-list the offending website from their indices, compel advertisement providers to halt services to the offending sites and force payment providers to terminate services with the offending website. These means enable the US Attorney-General to cut the lifeline of a website. By virtue of the USFTA, Singapore would have to recognise the jurisdiction of the US Attorney-General.

On the technology front, the only way to block specific section of a website is to use a technology known as deep packet inspection. Deep packet inspection requires an ISP to intercept and analyse customers’ web traffic. Effectively, SOPA/PIPA requires ISP to monitor every data packet of the user’s web traffic. This is a severe intrusion of privacy and it would bring an end to internet anonymity among other things – a huge price consumers have to pay in order to placate the anxiety of a small group of content creators.

Last but not least, SOPA/PIPA may risk breaking the global internet architecture by meddling with the domain name service (DNS). By requiring ISPs and other operators of “non-authoritative DNS servers” to take steps to filter and redirect requests for domains found by courts to point to sites that are dedicated to infringement, it will encourage more users to circumvent the DNS and in the process undermine internet security at a global level. Circumventing DNS is a key hacking technique for extracting confidential information and the use of illegitimate DNS servers will exacerbate the user’s vulnerability to hacks and exploits.

Summing up, SOPA/PIPA is a clear cut case of bad technology policy. Sure, SOPA/PIPA aims to alleviate the problems of intellectual property today. However, the institution and markets for information are rapidly changing and the current institutions and markets are evidently going to fail and go away. Instead of promoting intellectual property, SOPA/PIPA actually stifles internet innovation and threatens the security infrastructure of the internet. Singapore should oppose the introduction of SOPA/PIPA in the United States.