Congress's latest awful tech-policy idea: the Net-censorship bill
No idea is too bad not to get a second chance in Congress -- especially when it comes to tech policy.
This week's demonstration of that principle is a bill called the "Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act," which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday after being set aside in September.
COICA would empower the attorney general to get court orders barring Internet providers from routing their users to sites suspected of copyright infringement. The bill's text provides a generous definition of what would qualify a site for such punishment: It could be "primarily designed" or marketed for copyright infringement or have no other "demonstrable commercially significant purpose or use."
Copyright infringement, in turn, is broadly defined: It could include not just hosting downloads or streams of photos, music or movies but also providing "a link or aggregated links to other sites or Internet resources for obtaining access to such copies."
(Disclosure: I've linked to DVD-decrypting and file-sharing programs many times. Then again, it's now legal to decrypt a DVD to collect short clips for review and commentary.)
A suspected Web site would not be guaranteed its day in court. COICA requires that the government notify the site and its domain registrar but does not demand a trial and a verdict. A simple injunction by a judge will suffice. It's a rough equivalent of the "judicial civil forfeiture" proceeding through which the Feds can take a suspected drug dealer's property without first securing a conviction.
COICA wouldn't actually remove a site from the Internet, though. Instead, it would compel Internet providers and domain-name registries to remove their own listings of a site's domain name. Users could still get to that site by typing its Internet Protocol address, just as you can get to washingtonpost.com by typing 184.108.40.206 in your browser's address bar.
The Motion Picture Association of America thinks the bill is fantastic. Others do not.
Ninety-six pioneering Internet engineers have signed an open letter calling COICA a dangerous, unsound measure that would "risk fragmenting the Internet's global domain name system." The man who invented the Web itself, Tim Berners-Lee, doesn't like this bill, either.
Forty-nine law professors signed their own letter calling COICA "an unconstitutional abridgment of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment."
So, people who helped build the Internet think this law will have disastrous consequences, and people who know the law think it will get thrown out in court first. And yet COICA sailed through the Judiciary Committee on a 19-0 vote, with some of those yeas coming from senators who should know better, to judge from their records.
I know it's fashionable to say that nobody in Congress reads anything before voting on it. But, seriously: Did anybody on the Judiciary Committee read this thing before voting on it?
One senator has: Sen. Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.) told IDG News Service's Grant Gross that he'll oppose the bill. That should stop it from going anywhere this year--but I won't be surprised to see COICA re-emerge, zombie-like, in the next session. Because bad tech-policy ideas often get third chances too.
(2:58 p.m. Added a line about COICA's September setback and noted the chances of it not proceeding this year.)
| November 19, 2010; 12:34 PM ET
Categories: Policy and politics
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