As people wake up to the full horror of what SOPA would do to the Internet and its users, an increasing number of organizations with very different backgrounds are coming out against it. Here's one more to add to that list, from the world of non-profit humanitarian groups.
As Jim Fruchterman, president of the Silicon Valley-based Benetech
, explains in his post "Why I am Scared of the SOPA bill
We write software for people with disabilities as well as human rights and environmental groups. We’re against piracy, and have made commitments to authors and publishers to encourage compliance with copyright law.
So, we shouldn’t have anything to fear from a bill entitled “Stop Online Piracy Act,” right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
We’re getting very worried that our organization and the people we serve: people with print disabilities (i.e., people who are blind or severely dyslexic), and human rights groups will be collateral damage in Hollywood’s attempt to break the Internet in their latest effort to squash “piracy.” And, if we’re worried, a lot of other good organizations should start getting worried!
Fruchterman goes on to explore two major areas of concern. The first is that Bookshare, an online library for people who can’t read standard print books, might lose the ability to raise funds or take subscriptions.
As he points out, Bookshare is legal in the US, but that doesn't stop authors, agents or publishers who don’t know much about people with disabilities or copyright law sending cease and desist letters. At present, Benetech has time to talk people through the law before anything drastic happens. Here's how SOPA would change all that:
SOPA apparently has shoot first, ask questions later provisions. If any single publisher or author of any one of the more than 130,000 accessible books in our library gets antsy, they can send a notice to VISA and MasterCard and say, stop money from going to Benetech and Bookshare. No more donations to our charity. No more subscriptions from individual adults with disabilities.
No need to send us a letter. Or file a DMCA notice. Or do any real research. Just send out a bunch of notices and get all those pirates! Except, we’re not pirates. But, now the burden of proof has shifted to us: we’re presumed guilty, and we have to spent time and money defending ourselves.
There are two major problems here. First, the money gets cuts off immediately, jeopardizing the entire Bookshare project. Secondly, Benetech has to spend its limited funds paying lawyers to get the financial blocks removed. That will not only take time, it will hamper other worthwhile projects that Benetech could have been working on instead of fighting to get its revenue sources turned back on again.
It's those other projects that Fruchterman worries about in his second concern. Benetech develops free software to help human rights activists around the world safely record stories of human rights abuse. As Fruchterman points out, if SOPA becomes law, his organization will find itself in an impossible position:
The problem is that we provide technology that allows for security, privacy and circumvention. We do it for human rights groups. But, when asked if we know whether or not there are “pirated” copyrighted materials, we can’t say. Because, if we make software that promises to keep your life or death sensitive information secret to the best of our abilities, we won’t build a back door in for Syria, or China, or the U.S. government or even (heavens!) Hollywood.
But SOPA will give the US Attorney General the power to shut down sites that can be used for evading controls on piracy, and Benetech's software could certainly be employed in just that way (even if that is not its purpose). To avoid that, Benetech would presumably have to stop writing and distributing its code - which would place human rights organizations and activists at risk.
What makes this situation particularly ridiculous is that the US government is itself encouraging the spread of just this kind of software, even going so far as to invest in companies producing it
. Does that mean the US government will be giving out money to write such software, and then using SOPA to shut it down?
Fruchterman's comments are particularly valuable since they come from an organization that has a proven record of encouraging compliance with copyright law. This is no evil "friend of piracy", as opponents of SOPA are so often branded: this is just some people deeply concerned that two vulnerable groups – those with print disabilities and human rights activists – will be collateral damage if this ill thought-out bill is enacted.
Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter
, and on Google+