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A new threat to online freedom of speech

By Dan Kennedy, assistant professor of journalism, Northeastern University

Congress is coming after your Internet. Two proposals wafting their way through the House and the Senate would destroy the Internet as we know it, forcing some websites to shut down and others never to launch in order to avoid onerous penalties for copyright infringement.

As Dan Gillmor explains in the Guardian, the bills — known in the Senate as the Protect IP Act and in the House as the Stop Online Piracy Act — would end what is known as the “safe harbor” law. That law holds an Internet service harmless for hosting infringing material posted by a third party as long as it removes that material as soon as it receives notice from the copyright-holder.

Gillmor observes that YouTube never could have gotten off the ground if such a regime had been in effect at the time of its launching. “Congress is making common cause with a corporate cartel that wants to turn the Internet into little more than an enhanced form of cable television,” he writes.

According to Rebecca MacKinnon, writing in the New York Times, the proposals would set up blacklists to be administered by the U.S. attorney general, so that if a site were found to have infringed on copyright, it would essentially become invisible to anyone trying to find it. She compares the effect of the proposed law to the online censorship system that China uses, except that this one would be designed to protect the corporate interests of media companies rather than a government. MacKinnon argues that skittish businesses are already too eager to comply with takedown notices, and writes that the bills, if passed, could be used to suppress political debate:

Abuses under existing American law serve as troubling predictors for the kinds of abuse by private actors that the House bill would make possible. Take, for example, the cease-and-desist letters that Diebold, a maker of voting machines, sent in 2003, demanding that Internet service providers shut down Web sites that had published internal company e-mails about problems with the company’s voting machines. The letter cited copyright violations, and most of the service providers took down the content without question, despite the strong case to be made that the material was speech protected under the First Amendment.

Yesterday was American Censorship Day, and a number of sites blocked themselves to dramatize the effect of the proposals, according to the media-reform group Free Press.

Fortunately, David Kravets reports for Wired.com that a chief sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, seemed to be having second thoughts during a three-and-a-half-hour hearing on Wednesday. But even a compromise could endanger the right to free speech if it empowers the government to act against individuals on behalf of corporations.

And let’s hear a shoutout for U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a Republican presidential candidate who, as Gillmor notes, has come out against the House bill. I don’t believe the Obama administration has said a word. Sad to say, it doesn’t sound like the sort of thing this president would veto.

As a journalist, I rarely sign petitions. But I’m signing this as soon as I’m done writing, and I urge you to do so as well. The First Amendment is not a partisan cause.

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