Censorship Woes

The Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act bill, or COICA, should be loathed by anyone who uses the Internet. Here at UC Irvine, that would be all of us.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, introduced United States Senate Bill S.3804 on Sept. 20, 2010. If passed, this bill will give the Attorney General explicit authority to shut down any infringing website, domestic or foreign based. Aimed at preventing copyright infringement and squelching the online distribution of counterfeit goods, the COICA bill has garnered much of its support from the entertainment and publishing industries. Opposition, however, has been fierce. Groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union have voiced concern over and opposition towards the bill.

Opposition stems not from our love of free music and movies, but the principle behind restricting Internet access and the methodology to be employed. Law professors from across the nation decry the bill, stating that it violates our right to free speech by means of prior restraint. In addition, the limitations placed on free speech, free expression, and the free and open exchange of information and ideas are contrary to the aims of the United States Constitution. How can we hope to rally against oppressive regimes and gain support in favor of free and open democracies when our nation is not an example? Coming after Barack Obama’s repeated calls for a more open Internet in nations around the world, namely China, the COICA bill is an irony in and of itself.

Several prominent Internet engineers also protest the COICA bill. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, they voiced their concern regarding the matter in which infringing materials are to be removed. The COICA bill seeks to give the Attorney General authority to shut down entire domains, not only the specific webpage holding the infringing materials. There would be no trial or opportunity for defense during this process.

A “black list” would also be created by the Attorney General. United States Internet service providers would be obligated to prevent directing traffic to these domains. With a simple court order, the Attorney General could add domain names to this McCarthy-esque “black list.” Internet service providers, financial transaction providers and even online ad vendors would be legally required to block domains on this list. The other list, now removed, would have been one that allowed the Attorney General to add domains to it without a court order.

An example quickly becoming idyllic of the negative repercussions of the COICA bill is the popular website YouTube. Currently, as long as YouTube itself purges copyrighted materials from its website, they are safe from the law. However, if the COICA bill were to come into effect, YouTube could be shut down as a result of individuals listening to copyrighted music or watching copyrighted movies.
Certainly there is a great deal of data posted on the Internet that violates copyrights, to say the least. The government does have a responsibility to do something — they are, after all, the creators and enforcers of law. Attempting to rid the Internet of these websites is a noble idea but, like many other ideas, has become flawed in its execution.

The fight against online copyright infringement is becoming strikingly similar to our airport security debacle. Many opposed to the COICA bill have stated that there are many ways to share copyrighted materials even if the COICA bill were to come into fruition (like encrypted peer-to-peer sharing and files that are not dependent upon the domain name system). The issue begs us to ask how far we are willing to go. If individuals are able to bypass the COICA bill after its implementation, will there be more legislation to come?

Perhaps we can win the fight against copyrighted material, but the cost may be too high for many Americans, myself included. Governments are known for taking liberties with their powers, and it is not by any great stretch of the imagination that one could see the COICA bill becoming a power that is widely abused.

Alexander Gura is a fourth-year political science major. He can be reached at agura@uci.edu.