Sunday, May 6, 2012

Maybe You Can Stop Internet Piracy After All

Before I get started, I'd just like to say that I am in no way endorsing this plan, or in any way suggesting it is a good idea. The only reason I'm even bringing it up is that it seems like such an obvious solution to limit the impact of piracy on the internet, that I'm really not certain why no attempts have been made to jam it down our throats yet. Maybe we can thank the fundamental lack of understanding politicians and lobbyists have about how the internet works? Either way, I thought I'd just bring up the idea in case anyone can think of a reason why it wouldn't work that I can't.

The idea is simply this: Why not require a license to operate an internet server? Piracy on the internet these days is primarily accomplished in one of two ways. Either by uploading pirated content onto a file sharing website, or by transferring it directly via P2P. If you were to require anyone who operated a server on the internet to be licensed by the countries in which the server was connectible, the first would quickly become impractical, and the second would be downright impossible.

In the case of file sharing websites, any site found to be operating a service dealing in large amounts of pirated content would have their license revoked, or at least suspended until they cleaned up their act. It would be pretty difficult to operate under the radar, because you'd need initial approval of your site to get a license in the first place. And even if you actually did manage to get a website up and running that dealt in pirated content, odds are someone would report you pretty quickly. Even a site that was inadvertently enabling sharing of copyrighted content could have their license suspended until they fixed the loophole that allowed it. As a bonus side effect, it would make the issue of operating an international website much less of a legal hassle, because you could choose which countries you wanted your site accessible in by only applying for licenses in those countries. There could also be some sort of global license for website operators who still wanted to enable worldwide access by default.

In the case of P2P sharing, you would need a license for other people to connect to you. These would typically not be given out to people on a consumer class connection, so you would not be able to engage in P2P connections at all. The only computers your ISP would allow you to connect to would be licensed servers.

On a technical level, such a system would actually be relatively easy and cheap to implement. It wouldn't require an overhaul or redesign of any existing systems. All you would need to do would be to implement a national white-list of IP addresses. ISPs could then add filtering rules that would make it impossible to connect directly to any server that wasn't on the list. Frankly, considering how much effort China puts into censorship, I'm shocked they haven't thought of this already. White-lists are not exactly a new concept, and they are extremely effective in limiting access.

Such a system would of course, not be perfect. It would for example, still allow people who did own servers to use them to connect to darknets along with other server operators and share pirated content that way. It would probably be possible to detect and track this kind of activity with enough effort though. But, for all intents and purposes, it would put internet piracy out of the reach of the average person. As far as the copyright lobbyists are concerned, that should be good enough.

The biggest hurdle to actually implementing such a system would likely be political. You thought SOPA got people upset? An internet server license bill would almost certainly lead to biggest uprising of internet activism the world has ever seen. Still, when you live in a country with a two party system, and both parties support the bill, the political danger either of the parties would find themselves in after passing it would be limited. I could envision a circumstance where the bill was muscled through at the beginning of an election cycle, and was put into effect long enough before the next election that most people would realize the law didn't affect them in any way. Politically, it could work if the timing was right.

I don't want to see a law like this passed. We have a top-heavy system controlled by a select group of individuals to begin with. The internet seemed to finally be putting a dent in that system, and requiring all internet server operators to be licensed by the government would almost certainly put an end to that. But I wonder, would we be able to stop a bill like this? After all the protests were over and done with, and the law was signed, would the people ever have enough political power to overcome those who have a vested interests in limiting our power again? Things like this keep me up at night.