Would you be outraged if the Department of Justice shut down The Foundry without any warning and blocked access for more than a year?
That's exactly what happened to a hip-hop blog called Dajaz1.com, which was falsely accused of criminal copyright infringement. The blog posted music from artists promoting their work. But federal authorities viewed it differently. They seized the domain name, then shared virtually no information with its owner for more than year. Only recently did they quietly drop the case.
The government's handling of this hip-hop blog is fueling fears about legislation moving quickly through Congress that addresses copyright infringement and online piracy.
The Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA as it's known in the House, and the Senate's PROTECT IP Act would give the U.S. attorney general the power and authority to block criminal enterprises from trafficking in illegal products online.
Their cause is a noble one. Business incur significant losses when Americans buy counterfeit items. Consumers must also be increasingly vigilant about purchases they make online. Federal authorities shut down more than 150 websites just last month for pirated goods.
But the two bills making their way through Congress are the wrong solution. They pose serious threats to freedom of speech and expression and raise security concerns. With the Senate possibly voting on the PROTECT IP Act in January and the House moving forward with hearings on SOPA, Americans should understand what's at stake.
As the case with Dajaz1.com illustrates, the federal government already has the ability to shut down U.S.-based websites. A growing number of so-called "rogue sites" are located outside the United States, however, limiting the government's ability to block them.
SOPA would give Attorney General Eric Holder and individual intellectual property holders the ability to sue these rogue sites if they were "dedicated to theft of U.S. property." The government, through a court order, could take these four steps:
- Require Internet service providers to prevent subscribers from reaching the website in question;
- Prohibit search engines such as Google from providing direct links to the foreign website in search results;
- Prohibit payment network providers, such as PayPal or credit card firms, from completing financial transactions affecting the site; and
- Bar Internet advertising firms from placing online ads from or to the affected website.
"The legislation addresses a legitimate problem," wrote Heritage’s regulatory policy expert James Gattuso, "but it may have unintended negative consequences for the operation of the Internet and free speech."
Free speech: The legislation gives the government the authority to tamper with Internet search results by requiring firms like Google to block links to infringing websites. Placing this limit on information providers is troubling and arguably a violation of the First Amendment. Besides, Washington's appetite for power is uncontrollable, and this would almost certainly lead to a slippery slope of unwanted interference in the future.
Internet security: Criminals would almost certainly discover new ways to circumvent the government's measures. But the most glaring security problem with SOPA is the damage it would cause to DNSSEC, the new Internet system designed to limit certain crimes. This would jeopardize security across the Internet, potentially creating new challenges.
"The federal government needs to protect intellectual property rights," Gattuso concluded in his analysis. "But it should do so in a way that does not disrupt the growth of technology, does not weaken Internet security, respects free speech rights, and solves the problem of rogue sites."
The debate over SOPA is already among the most intense and polarizing taking place in Washington -- and rightfully so. With concerns about free speech and Internet security taking center stage, lawmakers would be wise to look at alternatives when they return in January.