Christian Huitema's blog

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SOPA and the Great Firewalling of America

23 Nov 2011

It appears that Microsoft does not in fact support SOPA, the draconian copyright protection proposal that the congress is working on. That's very good news, and we have to enjoy every pieces of good news these days. Why do all these folks try to break the Internet? Why are we not fighting harder against these censors?

SOPA would allow the US government to blacklist foreign web sites that somehow infringe US copyright laws. It sets a really bad example for every dictatorship or other authoritarian governments to block websites that somehow infringe their decrees. In her well-publicized Remarks on Internet Freedom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "In the last year, we've seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet. In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared…" Well, SOPA would allow the US government to do exactly that, make access to popular website suddenly disappear.

The simple idea of censoring foreign web sites is bad enough, but the provisions of SOPA are really a recipe for breaking the Internet. The first step is to ask ISP to block some "offending" DNS names. You would try to access, but if the "example" site is banned you would just get a "no such domain" response. Of course, there are easy workarounds, for example creating a non-blocked alias for the "" At that point, enforcement becomes a game of whack-a-mole: alias pops-up, copyright enforcers find out, alias gets blocked, new alias pops up… SOPA tries to make this kind of evasion harder, but in doing so it justifies all kinds of new censorship techniques, from snooping on packet content to blocking IP addresses. If the law passes, the US would get its own "Great Firewall," much like China.

The first defense against the Great Firewalling of America is of course the political process. We should tell our friends, explain how bad this is, and make sure that our senators and representative hear about it. With enough pressure, maybe the law won't pass. But I also believe we can build Internet technologies that thwart this kind of attempts. Do you remember hearing that the decentralized Internet was so robust that it would resist an atom bomb and repair itself? That's not quite true anymore, because we developed big centralized services like the DNS, because we allowed telecommunication companies to snoop on our unencrypted traffic, and because the large cloud services are an easy prey for censors and other government agents. Why are we not fixing that?