COLUMN: Senate bill could censor the Internet
An informed and actively involved public is the essential cornerstone for a well-functioning democracy. If society lacks a populace ready to resist tyranny and oppression, then the protective forces of democracy crumble.
Tyranny and oppression can take on many forms. They can be the obvious cases of torture done in the name of the “War On Terror.” More often than not, the tyranny and oppression of modern governments are hidden and institutional. This is only possible because lawmakers and other politicians do not expect an uproar.
Case in point: Senate Bill 3804: Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeit Acts.
The mere introduction of this bill by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. — and 16 other cosponsors, including Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn — is evidence of Congress’s hubristic assumptions that they can chisel away freedom of expression without any public outcry.
Considering the content of the bill, it is not surprising that four out of the top five campaign contributors Leahy’s are various media companies. These senators have the audacity to choose corporate interests over that of the free flow of information.
The unnecessary power it gives to the judicial branch to dictate the content of the Internet is dangerous.
The proposed intent of the bill is to provide the courts and the attorney general authority “to combat online infringement, and for other purposes.” Essentially the bill’s proposed purpose is to create an avenue for the federal government to fight against illegal downloading of movies, music, etc.
The language of the bill, however, gives one the impression of a much different purpose: the potential and permission for internet censorship.
Let’s break it down.
If a website “has no demonstrable, commercially significant purpose or use other than...” copyright infringement, then the website is blocked by our Internet providers. This seems logical on the surface. Passing a law to combat illegal downloading is something that could be supported.
However, that’s not what the bill’s language gives courts and attorney general the power to do. There are two main ways in which they are given excessive power in the bill.
First is through the vague wording the bill uses to classify a site guilty of online infringement.
If a site that is not or has not yet become profit seeking, such as YouTube before sponsorship, and allows any of its users to commit copyright infringement with the domain’s features can be blocked. Youtube would not have made it past its infancy.
This may seem like a small infringement, but it gives these authorities the power to shut down any site for the infringement activities of any of its users. This of course is whether or not the operators can prevent occasional infringement or are even aware of the infringement itself.
Second, the attorney general has the power to make his own secondary list of sites, apart from those courts have already taken action against.
The attorney general’s list does not require enforcement by Internet service providers to block these sites, but it recommends these sites be blocked. In a real world application of this law, the list is public and Internet service providers will be urged to conform to both lists. There need be little evidence to support accusation of infringement by these sites to make it on the list; all the attorney general needs to do is consider bringing the site’s case to court.
The bill being pushed by the media companies to discourage illegal downloading of various media serves a second, more dangerous purpose. It disrupts the free flow of information and creates a very real potential for government censorship of the Internet.
— John Best, biochemistry and East Asian studies senior