Stop the Great Firewall of America

Last month the U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk sent a letter to the Chinese government requesting information about its censorship practices. The middle kingdom’s response: a polite middle finger. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu declared that Chinese censorship follows “international practice.”

Her response is specious given that China operates the world’s most elaborate and opaque system of Internet censorship, as I describe in Chapter 3. Yet Congress has been hard at work to bolster its legitimacy, however inadvertently. The reality is that the PROTECT IP Act now in the Senate, and a new House version called Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), would bring key features of China’s Great Firewall to America. Read my opinion piece in the New York Times for more details on how these bills would implement technical and legal solutions that would have the unfortunate result of making the Internet everywhere more like the Chinese Internet.

The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on SOPA at 10am on Wednesday morning (a few hours from now). It will be webcast live on the committee website. The video should also be archived there after the event.

Opposition to SOPA is widespread, bipartisan, and international. The Center for Democracy and Technology is collecting links to blog posts, articles, as well as letters of opposition from human rights groups, Internet engineers, law professors, Internet companies, public interest advocates, consumer rights groups, among others. Allan Friedman at the Brookings Institution has an excellent paper explaining how SOPA and PROTECT IP will make the Internet less secure, sabotaging engineers’ long-running efforts to increase the level of security in the global domain name system.

The New America Foundation (where I am a senior fellow) has signed an open letter to the House Judiciary Committee, along with a list of human rights, civil liberties and public interest groups. It argues:

We do not dispute that there are hubs of online infringement. But the definitions of the sites that would be subject to SOPA’s remedies are so broad that they would encompass far more than those bad actors profiting from infringement. By including all sites that may – even inadvertently – “facilitate” infringement, the bill raises serious concerns about overbreadth. Under section 102 of the bill, a nondomestic startup video-sharing site with thousands of innocent users sharing their own noninfringing videos, but a small minority who use the site to criminally infringe, could find its domain blocked by U.S. DNS operators. Countless non-infringing videos from the likes of aspiring artists, proud parents, citizen journalists, and human rights activists would be unduly swept up by such an action. Furthermore, overreach resulting from bill is more likely to impact the operators of smaller websites and services that do not have the legal capacity to fight false claims of infringement.

In Chapter 7 I describe my experience testifying at a March 2010 House Foreign Relations Committee hearing chaired by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA). Berman happens to be one of SOPA’s key sponsors. While the hearing’s stated purpose was to discuss Google’s decision to halt censorship in China and how the United States can support global Internet freedom, committee members devoted considerable time to chastising a Google executive for failing to sufficiently police uploads to YouTube for infringing content. By their standards, YouTube and other similar user-driven sites clearly fall short of SOPA’s requirements. As I point out in the book, The cognitive dissonance on display at that hearing highlighted an inconvenient reality: politicians throughout the democratic world are pushing for stronger censorship and surveillance by Internet companies to stop the theft of intellectual property. They are doing so in response to aggressive lobbying by powerful corporate constituents without adequate consideration of the consequences for civil liberties, and for democracy more broadly.

The public interest letter details some of those consequences:

Relying on an even broader definition of “site dedicated to theft of US property,” section 103 of SOPA creates a private right of action of breathtaking scope. Any rightsholder could cut off the financial lifeblood of services such as search engines, user-generated content platforms, social media, and cloud-based storage unless those services actively monitor and police user activity to the rightsholder’s satisfaction.

In my op-ed I conclude:

The potential for abuse of power through digital networks — upon which we as citizens now depend for nearly everything, including our politics — is one of the most insidious threats to democracy in the Internet age. We live in a time of tremendous political polarization. Public trust in both government and corporations is low, and deservedly so. This is no time for politicians and industry lobbyists in Washington to be devising new Internet censorship mechanisms, adding new opportunities for abuse of corporate and government power over online speech. While American intellectual property deserves protection, that protection must be won and defended in a manner that does not stifle innovation, erode due process under the law, and weaken the protection of political and civil rights on the Internet.

I am not against copyright or intellectual property protection – I’m about to publish a copyrighted book. I hope that people will buy it. Its quality owes a great deal to the editors and other professionals whose job it was to help me shape and refine my argument, and to improve my prose. But I don’t believe that the defense of my copyright should come at the expense of civil liberties. It is a moral imperative for democracies to find new and innovative ways to protect copyright in the Internet age without stifling the ability of citizens around the world to exercise their right to freedom of speech and assembly on the Internet.

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