President Obama endangers internet freedom

In another example of “do as I say, not as I do,” Obama vowed to the UN General Assembly that he would fight to preserve a free and open internet, and call out countries who censor content, but unbeknownst to most UN members (and US citizens), a piece of legislation was introduced and fast-tracked four days prior to this policy position which undermines the spirit of his own words. Not only does this new Online Infringement bill mandate the government blacklisting of websites, opponents fear its passage will reshape the internet entirely.

Legislation being proposed by the Obama administration would require that all internet-based communication services be able to comply with federal wiretapping warrants. In a separate (but related) attack on personal privacy and free speech, the Senate Judiciary Committee is quietly hearing S. 3804, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA). If passed, the Attorney General would have arbitrary authority over what domains internet service providers can and cannot allow their customers to access.  

One is billed as a way for national-security officials to keep pace with an evolving “terrorism threat”, and the other is advertised as a solution for rampant online copyright infringement. The former seems to seek conformity with Due Process; the latter eschews it. So how are they linked?  

Obama’s promise to give federal agencies the tools they need to pursue what they feel to be legitimate criminal investigations couldn’t have come at a better time for COICA advocates, as it effectively diverted public scrutiny from a piece of legislation which is (for all intents and purposes) a reconstituted model of Lieberman’s controversial Internet Kill-Switch idea. That the president announced his intentions (which won’t be drafted into a bill until next year) merely days after Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced their “Online Infringement” bill is damning evidence of administrative complicity in what civil rights proponents see as another nail in the coffin for the Bill of Rights.  

The real danger of S.3804 is the broadness of its language, allowing the government to block any website that uses copyrighted material as “central to its activity.” The folks at one progressive watchdog group have put the proposed law into perspective:  

     “…sites like YouTube could get censored in the US. Copyright holders like Viacom argue that copyrighted material is central to activity of YouTube. But under current US law, YouTube is perfectly legal as long as they take down copyrighted material when they’re informed about it — which is why Viacom lost their case in court. If this bill passes, Viacom doesn’t even need to prove YouTube is doing anything illegal — as long as they can persuade a court that enough other people are using it for copyright infringement, that’s enough to get the whole site censored. 

     “And even without a court order, sites can get blacklisted just by order of the Attorney General — and the bill encourages ISPs to block those sites as well. ISPs have plenty of reason to obey a government blacklist even when they’re not legally required.”  

That’s right, even if a court order isn’t granted to shut the site down, the Attorney General can simply make his own list of boogeymen and employ a powerful political apparatus to induce fear and ensure ISP compliance to federal regulations. Opponents contend that the scope of censorship will naturally stray beyond copyright protection. Power of this sort will be easily abused by political factions lobbied by corporate interests. What better way to sell a concept, idea or product than to have the power to censor any and all competition?  

Even if government regulators don’t use any of the nifty tools that COICA will grant them, opponents fear the very passage of the bill will result in a far more restricted internet experience for Americans.   According to demandprogess.org,

     “Currently the United States is the global hub of Internet traffic, but if this law passes Internet traffic will be reconfigured to route around it. Companies will move their US servers and domain names overseas, Internet users will route their traffic through other countries (just like Chinese citizens have to do now!), and software will have to be reconfigured to no longer trust answers from American servers.”

Senate bill 3804 is being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee and is expected to pass before Sunday.