In an interview published this week in Law.Com, general counsel for the Washington DC based nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology, David Sohn, discusses the protests against SOPA and PIPA, including the January 18 internet blackout action. In general, he disparages the methods proposed in the bills for shutting down sites that are alleged to be copyright infringers, claiming concern over the likelihood that ISPs put into policing roles will take a more risk averse approach in shutting down sites, resulting in a curtailment of freedom of expression. However when he is asked how he would balance the right to free speech on the Internet with the need to curtail online IP theft, his response is:
The portions of the bills that worked were those that took a follow-the-money approach by cutting off the funding support for rogue websites. WikiLeaks provides an instructive example. All of the efforts to make it disappear didn't work, but what did work was the financial blockade that made it impossible for WikiLeaks to fund the bandwidth it needed to run.
Putting aside his misguided claim that WikiLeaks actually ceased operating after the financial blockade was imposed on them in December 2010, his comments do in other ways properly reflect the grim reality. What Sohn is referring to here are the provisions in SOPA / PIPA that prohibit any site accused of piracy from doing business with other services, such as PayPal or any advertising platform. Almost precisely what was done to WikiLeaks having their relationships cut off not only with PayPal, but also with Visa, MasterCard, Bank of America and Western Union - resulting in the loss of 95% of their income from donations - their only income - for the last 15 months.
The recent news of alleged LulzSec spokesperson Topiary's arrest took the media spotlight away from WikiLeaks supporters' demonstration against PayPal. But it also raises questions about how online laws are applied, and the credibility of those who enforce them.
Topiary served as LulzSec's witty media front-man and his clever humour was tempered by a strong sense of justice.
"Laws are to be respected when they're fair, not obeyed without question," he said in a recent interview. "Revolution, to me, is bringing down the big guy while not forgetting to stand up for the little guy."
Topiary's arrest is just the latest in a string of arrests which are set to turn the spotlight back onto the US justice system. Many Anonymous supporters doubt the evidence being used against alleged juvenile hackers, while the WikiLeaks legal case against financial services like Visa, PayPal and Mastercard will generate even more public scrutiny.
A second wave of online protests has been launched againt PayPal, the Internet payment company whose December 2010 blocking of WikiLeaks donations provoked angry Denial Of Service (DDOS) attacks on their site. The latest protest, code-named #OpPayPal, was launched by AntiSec hacktivists, headed by Anonymous and Lulzsec, in response to recent FBI arrests of people allegedly involved in the earlier protest.
Statements posted by LulzSec and Anonymous encouraged PayPal users to close their accounts and condemned "the FBI's willingness to arrest and threaten those who are involved in ethical, modern cyber operations." The arrested individuals included a minor whose name could not be released in court, and Mercedes Renee Haefer, a 20 year old journalism student who now faces up to 15 years in prison and a maximum $500K fine.
Haefer's lawyer, Stanley L. Cohen of New York, told the media: "In the 18th century, people stood on street corners handing out pamphlets saying, 'Beware the all-powerful military and big government'. Some people listened. Some people walked away. Today, pamphleteers use the Internet."
PayPal, an online payment-transfer service, has apparently developed reservations about the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
As spokespersons for the Bradley Manning Support Network have observed, there is no obligation under US law for a private company to restrict fund-raising for an accused person: