An Open Letter to Pearson about SOPA/PIPA

To: John Isley, Executive Vice President, Higher Education & CEO Pearson Technology Group

Date sent: 5 January 2012

Like many people in the technology industry we’ve been keeping half-an-eye on the debates over SOPA and Protect-IP. We’ve been disturbed by what we see, but not to the point of feeling we can make much impact by any action. However we were concerned when it was revealed that Pearson Education is a supporter of the SOPA legislation. As authors of books published by Pearson we’re concerned that an organization we’re closely connected with is supporting this legislation.

We’re certainly in sympathy with the intent of this legislation. As authors we make considered decisions to make some material available freely on our websites and make other material, such as books, available for payment. We think that’s a decision that’s up to us and should be enforced. We know of sites that make pdfs of our books available and certainly want that behavior to stop. However we think there are serious flaws with this legislation, which make it the wrong way to approach this problem.

Our concerns fall into three broad categories.

Firstly we’re concerned about the legal procedures that can be used to block websites, where there seems to be a serious lack of due process. While we agree that action needs to be taken against websites that persistently host copyrighted material, the provisions of these bills seem to allow very little oversight on measures against alleged offenders. Even the most serious criminals need to be treated with due process, otherwise we risk innocent people facing punishment. There seem to be serious risks that organizations, particularly smaller ones with limited legal budgets, could face unwarranted legal attacks.

Our second problem with these bills is technological. The bills advocate manipulating some of the core protocols of the internet, in particular DNS. They are at odds with efforts to improve the security of DNS and encourage the use of techniques that are thus far only used by malware. Not just do these approaches undermine internet security, they are also ineffective to moderately determined people who can work-around the blocking that’s being done. Sadly techniques used to work-around this blocking will also leave people more open to security attacks. It seems to us that these laws have not had the engineering involvement required to come up with appropriate measures.

Our third problem is the very poor information given in the congressional proceedings we saw late in 2011. There were no witnesses who could talk sensibly on the engineering issues that we mentioned above, which is particularly important given the lack of engineering knowledge in congress. We don’t expect members of congress to understand software engineering issues, but we do expect them to listen to those that do. In general the proceedings seemed very tilted towards the supporters of these bills, which didn’t provide much opportunity for opponents to state their concerns.

So these are our concerns, but why should this concern Pearson? We think it is important for those that wish to protect copyrighted works to ensure they take actions that balance the need to protect intellectual property with fair procedures in sympathy with the way the internet works. This is particularly true of an organization that has a significant role in technology education. The contrast between Pearson and O’Reilly has been particularly stark. Several senior people at O’Reilly, including Tim himself, have been taking an active role in this debate. We realize that Pearson as an organization prefers to have a lower profile, but we do think there is a responsibility here to take part.

In our view, these bills are seriously flawed, and are not deserving of Pearson’s support in their current form. Personally we’re unhappy with our indirect association with support for these bills.

We intend to publish this letter as an open letter in the hope that other people connected with Pearson, in particular our fellow technical authors, will thus be motivated to consider these issues and make their opinions known.


If other Pearson authors agree sufficiently with what we say here that they wish to add their virtual signatures to this letter, please email us to say so and we will add you to the list of signatories.

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