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Counterpoint: Senate Bill 3804

Nov 19, 2010 | 6:23am EST

Capitol HillThe line in the sand over the widespread practice of internet piracy and copyright violation has long since been drawn. This isn’t yet another soapbox opining over the damage it causes or the future it is ushering in. Instead this week there is actual, honest to God news in the battle between content providers and file sharers. The Senate Judiciary committee (on which such Senate celebrities as Al Franken, Russ Feingold, Orrin Hatch, Diane Feinstein and Arlen Specter sit -19 Senators in all) voted by a margin of 19-0 to send Senate Bill 3804, known as the "Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act" (or COICA), to the floor for a vote. This thing is going to sail through the Senate and the House of Representatives like a celebrity through airport security. I’m not here to convince you to call your congressmen; in fact, I’m convinced all the calls in the world won’t change his mind, one way or the other.

I think this is a debate we need to have and we need to have publicly, but one side isn’t being completely honest. And unlike the 99 out of 100 other times when Congress sides with big business instead of the people, this time the shady arguments come from the opposition – the freedom fighters, if you will - the one’s fighting for more freedom instead of less of it. Take a look at this. It’s an online petition claiming to have over 250,000 signatures already opposing the bill. My problem with it? The picture in the corner and the language about the bill. It’s a picture of a laptop with a CENSORED logo over a YouTube video of President Obama addressing the United Nations. “OMG! They’re gonna take away my YouTube and censor unpopular speech!” No. They’re not. They can’t. That’s not what the bill does at all.

The problem with it is that every scrap of argument against it is either disingenuous or a slippery slope argument. Is this, as many pundits have suggested, the first step toward the government censoring free speech on this internet? Yes. Yes it is. In the same way that preventing people from buying automatic .50 Caliber machines guns at convenience stores without proper documentation is the first step towards repealing the 2nd Amendment. The question here isn’t whether or not this is what would need to happen to get to a China like repression of information; it is whether our fear of that dystopian, Orwellian future should prevent us from legislating against the folks we all know are on the wrong side of the law.

What does the bill do? It allows the creation of an internet blacklist of websites that the US Government can seize (if they are located within the United States) or require your internet service provider to block (if they are located abroad). On the surface it sounds scary, until you read the fine print. The Bill amends only Chapter 113 of title 18 of the United States Code which deals EXCLUSIVELY with stolen property. To expand and abuse this bill would require a completely different bill addressing a very different part of the US Code. There is absolutely nothing in the bill that allows the government a redress of questionable content. Even child porn can’t be targeted by this bill. Unless it is copyrighted. Because everything in this bill targets two things – internet piracy and counterfeiting operations. The only thing this bill is going to block access to – because let’s face it, anyone doing these things in the US will have moved operations offshore long before it passes – is the Pirate Bay, Chinese websites selling spoofed pharmaceuticals, and websites streaming pirated movies.

And the Bill certainly won’t stop the flow of pirated goods or halt file sharing. But it will make it harder to do. And by restricting access, the government can choke the flow on things most people agree are wrong. Sites like Reddit and 4Chan will still be able to widely disseminate links to pirated goods because, as the bill stipulates, such a site must be “primarily designed” and “has no demonstrable, commercially significant purpose or use other than, or is marketed by its operator, or by a person acting in concert with the operator, to offer” such materials. In other words, the entire primary purpose of the site must be to infringe on copyrights. So YouTube is more than safe from this, counter to what Demand Progress would like you to believe.

The idea of a free and open internet is important, just as the idea of a free and open country is important. But free and open doesn’t mean free from the rule of law. There is no real freedom when your own property can be subject to theft and dissemination without your consent; there can be no freedom when people have no way of redress against those who knowingly do them wrong. That’s not freedom; that’s anarchy. People are going to have a hard enough time arguing against this bill when their arguments are sound, well thought out and air tight. Imagine how hard it is going to be to win fighting from the banks of a slippery slope. When and if someone in Congress decides to take this to another level and censor based upon their dislike of content and I’ll be the first one to line up beside you. But not for this; this one’s pretty clear cut.

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