Because Freedom isn’t Free: Why We* Blacked Out Crooked Timber Yesterday

by Maria on January 18, 2012

Yesterday, in protest at draft US laws that would harm the Internet ostensibly to fight digital content piracy, websites including Wikipedia, Flickr, BoingBoing and many thousands more went voluntarily dark. Crooked Timber was proud to be one of them.

Why should a global blog care about American legislation?

For all the talk of the unintended consequences of SOPA’s anti-piracy measures, it is no accident that Crooked Timber could one day end up as collateral damage of this legislation. SOPA/PIPA are the latest in a long line of laws that seek to externalize the enforcement costs of a beleaguered business model.

We could lose our domain name and more, and with no effective recourse, simply because a commenter posts a link to allegedly pirated content. Or because a touchy content owner doesn’t like us linking to them, and doesn’t like what we write. I say these unintended consequences are not accidental because to the intellectual property zealots who privately draft our public laws, Crooked Timber would simply be an acceptable level of road-kill. Funny how ‘tough choices’ are bad things that are done to other people, eh?

More broadly, you should care because SOPA/PIPA are explicitly extra-territorial. SOPA degrades the domain name system in ways that have been repeatedly and explicitly spelt out to US politicians by Steve Crocker and Vint Cerf, two of the guys who invented the DNS the Internet. They were ignored.

(Somehow, it’s ok for law-makers to screw up part of the critical infrastructure while cheerfully admitting they have no clue how it works. Think how that would go down with, say, healthcare or the economy. I know most of them have no clue, but can you imagine them announcing that to a hearing and everyone laughing sympathetically? Yes? Welcome to my world.)

Also extra-territorially, PIPA messes with search results outside the US. And under SOPA, domain names of non-US sites but registered with US registrars could be seized even more easily and without reasonable or timely appeal. There are many, many ways to get screwed by this, even if you don’t live/vote/spend in America.

These are not bugs. They are features. The aim of SOPA and similar laws is to eliminate barriers to the fast and cheap enforcement of private property rights. Abuse is already rife of the currently allowed punitive actions that do not follow due process or include similarly quick and effective channels of appeal. (See notice and takedown under the DMCA, or Whois just about anywhere.) This legislation was created for one narrow commercial interest group out of a whole ecosystem. None of its effects are unintended.

You need to care about this because the infection is spreading to where you live.

Alongside the State Department’s pronouncements on ‘democracy brought to you by Twitter’, and exhortations to other countries to stop blocking the Internet, the US is actually better known abroad for another export: intellectual property maximalism by force.

Via wildly asymmetrical bi-lateral trade agreements, America bullies Australia’s public health system to pay over the odds to US Big Pharma, and threatens to blacklist Spain for not passing laws written by the US film industry. SOPA/PIPA may sound so crazily over the top that they’ll never work anywhere else. Just see how high that one flies the next time the USTR visits your capital city.

But there is hope. Hell, there may even be some common sense.

Finally, the Internet works
The SOPA/PIPA moment is a turning point. Thanks to Wikipedia, this supposedly arcane Internet policy issue has been on every BBC TV and radio bulletin I’ve caught in the past 24 hours. It is mainstream news around the English-speaking world.

(Incidentally, some of the media exchanges are pure comedy gold, as Big Content employees interview each other, trying to be fair-minded but genuinely perplexed that any of this is an issue. BBC Radio 4 interviewer to a Telegraph commentator: “But how can anyone except pirates be against anti-piracy? Surely everyone is in favour of this law, except, of course, for its unintended consequences..?”)

You could see this turning point in neoclassical terms:

• Rent-seekers and gate-keepers coordinate to externalize their costs onto the public and hobble new market entrants, via lawmakers delighted to accept ‘free’ money.
• Citizens face collective action problems in finding out about and stopping it.
• The Internet saves itself at the last minute by reducing the barriers to information
and advocacy, and making it too costly for politicians to stay ignorant and happy.
• Oh, and the whole technology industry also rides in on a larger-than-expected white horse, followed by, possibly, the White House Blackberry User in Chief.

Or you could tell it as the story of the moment people realised the Internet is about more than porn.

Either way, the time is long gone when dreamers could believe the Internet sees censorship as damage and routes around it. The Internet is simply an elegant set of chokepoints being squeezed by anyone who can get their hands around one. The time has come to pick a side.

Movements are formed in moments such as this one. Changes in behavior flow from changes in ideas, and from evolving beliefs about what can be done.

Now, I’m not going to go all Holy Jebus on you, and I realize there are many, many issues we should all throw our weight and our pennies at. But Crooked Timber is a blog, and it depends on a functioning, open Internet. So I ask readers to think about what steps you might take to help prevent foolish, frightened or greedy people from getting themselves lathered up and breaking the Internet all over again.

We’ve already linked to EFF’s SOPA page. If you live outside the US and want to make a difference in what is still a lopsided debate, consider joining or donating to the following organisations:

UK: Open Rights Group (Disclosure: I have recently joined its Board of Directors)

Ireland: Digital Rights Ireland

Europe: European Digital Rights (EDRI), a Brussels umbrella group run by the redoubtable Joe McNamee. Their list of member organisations is also a good source of like-minded orgs.

Feel free to suggest other Internet rights groups below.

* All of us at Crooked Timber agreed/acquiesced to going dark for a day to protest at SOPA/PIPA, for what I imagine are similar reasons. This post, however, represents my own views. Big thanks to Kieran for organizing a URL re-direct at very short notice.



Anonymous Graduate Student 01.19.12 at 12:16 am

If you’re going to black out your website, you should at least do so until midnight Eastern Standard Time in the US. I suspect a number of people didn’t even know that the website was blacked out because they were at work.


Sus. 01.19.12 at 12:33 am

I applaud your support of the Blackout – I missed CT a lot (and Wiki not at all) today. I was pleased by Facebook and Twitter posts by friends and colleagues opposing SOPA/PIPA. But I couldn’t help but wish that those so concerned with freedom of expression and personal freedom would speak out with equal fervor on other threats by large and small (as just one recent example, only a handful of activist friends seemed to even notice the US Defense Authorization Act as it sailed though approval). I hope they get involved in this effort, and that it encourages other action on other important issues.


Sebastian (2) 01.19.12 at 1:22 am

nice job.


phosphorious 01.19.12 at 1:28 am

The bill is losing support. Good work all!


Timothy Scriven 01.19.12 at 4:09 am

As a Facebook friend put it:

“It has become apparent that copyright in its current form is not compatible with the internet in its current form. I’ve made my choice.”

Who could not choose this wonderful free-sprawling conversation over a tired, state enforced form of rent seeking by big content? Why should shareholders take precedence over a community which, let’s be honest, I partially live in?


mclaren 01.19.12 at 5:29 am

Unnoticed and unremarked? The fact that the DHS is already seizing domain names and mangling the DNS system as though SOPA/PIPA were already law.

Of course, many of the domain names blocked in the DNS registry belong to innocent websites who have committed no wrongdoing. Since there is no legal process involved, it’s hard to see how the victims of this cyberterrorism perpetrated by the United States government can do anything. After all, it’s not as though the DHS went to a judge and got a court order — they simply seized internet domains.

As America becomes increasingly lawless and increasingly abandons the basic rule of law, this kind of censorship and pre-emptive police action by the U.S. government will become routine. Eventually, America will degenerate into a national-only internet firewalled from the rest of the world and rigidly censored. That’s not my prediction: John Dvorak predicted it, and he’s right.

Timothy Scriven asks: Who could not choose this wonderful free-sprawling conversation over a tired, state enforced form of rent seeking by big content?

The superwealthy elites who rule American society, that’s who. Get ready for an internet on which, when you search for the phrase BUSH ADMINISTRATION WAR CRIMES, you get the answer 404 ERROR – PAGE NOT FOUND.


Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.19.12 at 5:50 am

Somehow, it’s ok for law-makers to screw up part of the critical infrastructure while cheerfully admitting they have no clue how it works.

That should never be acceptable. To err is human, but to remain glibly ignorant is diabolical.


Josh G. 01.19.12 at 5:52 am

I’m cynical enough to realize that public opinion in the US carries little weight compared to big money. What I don’t understand is why the “content industries” (movies and music, essentially) have so much power given that they really aren’t that big, in terms of the whole economy. The tech industry is far larger, and almost uniformly opposed to this crap. (The consumer electronics industry isn’t too thrilled about it either – they’d rather implement features consumers actually want instead of wasting their time with the newest iteration of DRM.) So what’s going on here? What allows the RIAA/MPAA to punch so far above their weight? It can’t be the screwed-up structure of the Senate, since both Silicon Valley and Hollywood are based in the same state (California). Is their lobbying just that much more effective? Are members of Congress star-struck, or perhaps stuck in a time-warp where the computer industry is still small and insignificant?


Bruce Wilder 01.19.12 at 6:06 am

“Somehow, it’s ok for law-makers to screw up part of the critical infrastructure while cheerfully admitting they have no clue how it works. Think how that would go down with, say, healthcare or the economy. ”

Was some kind of irony intended?


Meredith 01.19.12 at 6:23 am

Josh G., see
(Yeah, I was reduced to huffpo today.)
According to this, Obama has weighed the money/political pros and cons of this in precisely the terms you suggest ought to be at play. (Not to be overly cynical about him, I hope.)


Curmudgeon 01.19.12 at 8:03 am

I’m counting the days until Obama pulls his usual play of opposing draconian legislation in public while supporting it in private and then ultimately signing it without reservation. NDAA ring a bell?

With the exception of the abolition of slavery, the tide of history is very much against defeating efforts to expand property rights in ways that are harmful to the public interest. No matter what happens to SOPA and its bastard children running around in the halls of Congress, eventually we will lose. It’s only a matter of when.


chris y 01.19.12 at 9:19 am

“Somehow, it’s ok for law-makers to screw up part of the critical infrastructure while cheerfully admitting they have no clue how it works. Think how that would go down with, say, healthcare or the economy. ”

Well, until all lawmakers are simultaneously physicians and central bankers, it’ll go down pretty much as is.

The point is not that politicians should be experts in everything, as that’s evidently absurd. The point is that who they take advice from is as or more important than who they are, and the electorate doesn’t yet fully understand this.


Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.19.12 at 9:21 am

The tide of history is against the United States, Curmudgeon. Some time soon, the country will go from World’s Sole Superpower to just First Among Equals. SOPA will aggravate the process.

There will be arenas where the United States is still Number One. Its Navy will remain strong for the next few decades. But let’s take website hosting. Up to recently, you could count on America to put your material there. It’s got the 1st Amendment, and it doesn’t have the severe defamation laws like the Brits. But now, customers are spooked.

While those backing the bill have agreed to take the DNS provisions off the table for this round of legislation, they won’t stay that way for long. When combined with America’s questionable approach to privacy issues, the US risks losing its leadership position as the place to do business online.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed. While discussing the DDoS outage, Mark Jeftovic, CEO of EasyDNS. noted that he had begun to see an influx of customers – some of them quite large accounts – choosing EasyDNS specifically because they weren’t American. He said: “What the Americans are going to end up doing to themselves is really hamstring the ability of their own industries to compete. It is American businesses and American net users who will get the short end of the stick.”

SOPA won’t even stop privacy, even if it causes grief and uncertainty to untold people. The BRIC countries are there for your warez hosting services, and they’re prepared to take up the slack. Personally, I don’t like warez, and would rather be legitimately hosted in Australia, except that all the local services are too expensive. But if not them, there’s the Canadians and the Europeans.


boo 01.19.12 at 10:26 am

“Steve Crocker and Vint Cerf, two of the guys who invented the DNS”

DNS was invented by Paul Mockapetris.

Vint Cerf invented TCP/IP.


alfred venison 01.19.12 at 10:41 am

dear editor
imagination dead, imagine. where would aeschylus be? where would sopholcles be? euripides? the rest of us? if homer had taken out copyright? and george lucas wants “star wars” to be the “mythos” of our time. hah! what modern renaissance?
nice article, too.
yours sincerely
alfred venison


Brett Bellmore 01.19.12 at 12:29 pm

“What I don’t understand is why the “content industries” (movies and music, essentially) have so much power given that they really aren’t that big, in terms of the whole economy.”

Media corporations have content branches, and news branches. Do the bidding of the content industry, and you’re pretty much guaranteed positive news coverage.


roger 01.19.12 at 12:41 pm

A comic side to the content industries faux outrage is their history of building on the bones and ashes of other people’s IP – hence Disney, building an empire on free European folk lore or children’s books, in an industry based in Hollywood because independents moved there to get away from Edison’s cops. It wouin ld be interesting if they really enforced IP law in, say, clubs – any musician or group singing copyrighted material would naturally have to pay a part of the money they collected for the gig, right? If the SOPA law were extended to the offline world, I guess the clubs would have to pay up or close if that didn’t happen.
I think that there are weak spots in the dinosaur front that supports SOPA in the Senate, like Leahy. In a small, liberal state, I think it might be easy to turn up the heat.
The problem is, of course, that the software-Hollywood firms have quietly changed the terms of property so that the consumer doesn’t even know he or she has lost a valuable right when they have to sign contracts to receive property that severely limits their ability to use the property freely. And the pseudo-libertarians on the right are happy about that. Talk about the end of the free market! But of course, if a private enterprise enforces draconian rules that limit freedom, then, by the power invested by Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman’s ghost, it is all hunky dory. Adam Smith, I think, would disagree.


Pete 01.19.12 at 1:18 pm

@17 “any musician or group singing copyrighted material would naturally have to pay a part of the money they collected for the gig”

In the UK at least, this is handled by the Performing Rights Society. They’ll even come after you for money if you have a radio on in your workplace:


Dave 01.19.12 at 1:34 pm

We WON THE INTERNET, you guys!


tomslee 01.19.12 at 2:20 pm

Down and Out of Sài Gòn’s comment makes me wonder: to what extent is SOPA a threat to the Internet and to what extent is it a problem for US-based Internet companies? Because if it’s the latter I care a lot less about it than I thought I did.


Andrew 01.19.12 at 2:23 pm

This is about blocking information. It’s solely about preparing for the next wiki-leaks and emulating Chinese control over information exchange. It’s just another tool like the NDAA. The Hollywood angle is just a smokescreen, you know-“PIRates of the carribean y’all! So stop twittering about the next Occupy meet-up”


Maria 01.19.12 at 5:22 pm

Duh! Thanks, Boo. Paul Mockapetris did of course invent the DNS and doesn’t get half enough credit for it. I’ve corrected that now.


praisegod barebones 01.19.12 at 6:45 pm

tomslee: here are two people who think that its a threat to what they do on the Internet, and who specificall address the Canadian servers issue.

Basically, it looks as though – on their account – you couldn’t run a blog with a comments section that allowed links. That’s a very substantial chunk of the bits of the internet that I use for leisure and information.


tatere 01.19.12 at 7:15 pm

“The SOPA/PIPA moment is a turning point. “

I doubt it, sadly. I’ve seen a number of these ZOMG moments – remember Turn The Web Black? They were turning points too, except for then not. For all the easily imaginable reasons, I’m sure. Personally, I always notice the way the “opposition” accepts too many of the bogus premises of the other side – “unintended consequences” as you say.

It seems a bit more likely to see the rest of the world backing away from the USA, but I wonder, to what? Or are multiple limited points of control just inherently likely to be an improvement?


EWI 01.19.12 at 7:25 pm

Andrew Orlowski – good friend of the Spiked! crowd and Nigel Lawson’s GWPF – marked the fight against SOPA with a series of spiteful articles on The Register.

Unsurprising, perhaps, for someone who has never failed to find a pro-Murdoch talking point that he didn’t like – but I’ve never gotten why the majority of good writers on that site stick with working for such a corporate propaganda mill.


tomslee 01.19.12 at 7:41 pm

pgbb – Thanks for those links. Argument accepted.


Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.19.12 at 10:42 pm

EWI@25: the commenters are very anti-Murdoch as a rule. It may be no coincidence that Andrew Orlowski is the Register writer known for not accepting comments on his articles. He does accept pushback by email, however.

tomslee and praisegod barebones: SOPA and PIPA will be damaging for everyone. However, having your material hosted in the US adds an extra danger on top of that, because your stuff may be taken down on the whim of a government official.


Greg 01.21.12 at 2:57 am

Curmudgeon@ 11:

The goal of the powers, and the ultimate consequence of libertarian propertarian thinking, is the reinstitution of effective slavery, only it is the 99 percent who shall be the slaves. All property will devolve into the hands of the few, as even those of middle class, including the small business class, are priced out of solvency and into debt peonage. It’s the company town and the company store, then the dark ages and feudalism all over again, all paid for by people too stupid to care, and their bought government. The government does evil things for them, undermining its own legitimacy and hastening its effective dissolution. But that government, and its legitimacy in the eyes of the people, is the foundation of their wealth. and power. Meanwhile the wealthy few imagine they will retain their jets and yachts and mansions and estates in the wilderness when, as a consequence of their own venality, the civilization that gives them their toys, and their global reach and power, crumbles.

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