Why SOPA will fail: Undermining authority at the speed of the net

To bypass the 24-hour Wikipedia blackout, go to a wikipedia article and paste the text below into your URL bar.  Chrome users might have to re-type the “javascript” at the beginning since it’s truncated.  Thanks to mkdynamic for getting to this one literally minutes before I had the idea myself.  In case the irony here isn’t as immediately clear to my readers as it is to me, this is exactly how easy it would be to get around the SOPA blacklists.  Wiki put up a very weak block, and not only was I immediately able to figure out how to circumvent it, I happened upon a person who posted the same thing to Github 5 minutes earlier.


I recently found myself playing devil’s advocate in a conversation about SOPA, arguing that while I don’t think it’s morally just, I also don’t think that it will “destroy the open web” as most critics predict.   Tonight (well, today) as I ran up against Wikipedia’s blackout-in-protest, I was shown exactly why my point is valid.  The point was this: SOPA, as I understand it, is an extremely superficial prophylactic between users and “blacklisted” sites.  My understanding could be way off, but from what I’ve read SOPA specifically targets DNS, which is responsible for translating a unique name like like “wikipedia.org” to the server’s unique IP address (currently  If SOPA were to pass, the US government would be allowed to force all DNS servers to enforce a blacklist, denying users access to certain names like, say “thepiratebay.org” (currently for… a whole bunch of reasons.

But, under the same system, a user armed with the prior knowledge of these IPs would have no problem accessing the net exactly as it is today. All they have to do is modify a file that’s part of every operating system’s DNS integration to do the mapping for those URLS for them. While the non-savy user might not know how to do this, I can guarantee that there will be a million guides for the workaround the minute (before) the legislation passes. The above example couldn’t be a better case in point. Let me tell you a story:

I knew that wiki was going to do the blackout, but maybe it was because it’s such an integral part of my workflow, or maybe because I didn’t realize yet that it was Wednesday, I followed the link on google taking me to an article.  I was greeted with the article I wanted, and for about 500 milliseconds, I was free to view the article.  But then a big black ominous page came up explaining that wiki is in danger, prompting me to contact my representatives.  What intrigued me was that the article was there, if only for a split second.

Being a good web developer, I decided to prod around at the page with the chrome developer console and found that, sure enough, the page was still all there, but with a new element, the ‘mw-sopaOverlay’.  I right-clicked on and deleted that element, but was disappointed to find a blank page.  Poking around a bit more, I found that all of the content I wanted was still present, but just hidden.  A quick toggle of the extra display:none; rule on each of the content divs brought the whole page back!  I’m free to read wiki unhindered!

I felt compelled to share my discovery with others, and remembered that the browser can execute any script you type into the URL bar.  I started playing around with standard JS calls like element.remove(), but it seemed like chrome wasn’t allowing them.  As I kept poking around at the wiki page I notice that they use jQuery!  $(‘#mw-sopaOverlay’).remove() got the first job done!  As I kept playing around, some of my code was interpreted as a google search, and lo and behold, I found the Github post linked above, with a post date of “4 minutes ago”.  How perfect is that?  In trying to find a workaround to a protest to SOPA, I accidentally stumbled upon a post from someone having done exactly what I set out to do.  All of this happened at around 3 am, so the overlay object wasn’t even there mere hours before!  If this isn’t a testament to why SOPA won’t matter, I don’t know what is.  Until congress passes a law forcing site owners to shut down their servers, the web as we know it isn’t going anywhere.  Or if it does, it’ll be pretty easy to find it.

~ by Schoen on January 18, 2012.

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