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American Censorship Day: Wh██ At█ ██ P█es?

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By HVculture on November 16, 2011

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It’s American Censorship Day, which means it’s time to learn about what your Congress is doing to clamp down on your favorite websites, sharing sites and blogging platforms.

We tend to think of America as the land of freedom, but when it comes to the Internet, both houses of Congress are moving forward with bills that would drastically curtail Internet freedoms under the banner of protecting copyright holders from piracy. This could be change everything.

Yes, copyright holders have every right to protect their works from piracy. Yes, existing copyright law could use some solid tweaking in the age of remixing, reusing, piracy and mashing up.

But the Senate’s PROTECT IP Act and the House of Representatives’ Stop Online Piracy Act go well beyond protecting a copyright holder’s right and borders on pure censorship.

Both bills have come under fire from various groups for being akin to the “Great Firewall of America” and alternately, “a Trojan horse that might be better named the Social Media Surveillance Act.”

SOPA and PIPA are intended to curb the trade of pirated movies and music by giving copyright holders and law enforcement officials the added powers to cut off websites at their knees. The problem is those copyright holders have a means of recourse through 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

They would require search engines to unlist and block access to infringing sites; payment collectors and ad networks would stop transferring money to infringing site owners. It’s mostly foreign sites that don’t comply with DMCA take-down notices that are the intended target of the new bills. But does anyone trust government or businesses to not take advantage of these new laws?

It’s a slippery slope.

As the Washington Post reported Tuesday morning, the MPAA, RIAA, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who all support the bill, are now publicly aligned against Internet companies like AOL, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, LinkedIn, Mozilla and Zynga on SOPA and PROTECT IP.

“The House bill would also emulate China’s system of corporate “self-discipline,” making companies liable for users’ actions. The burden would be on the Web site operator to prove that the site was not being used for copyright infringement,” writes Rebecca MacKinnon in the NYT. “The effect on user-generated sites like YouTube would be chilling.”

Consider the role sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have played in both the Arab Spring and the recent Occupy Wall Street protests. Now consider the lengths all governments and those in power have gone to shut those movements down. Do you really want to give those in power the ability to unilaterally and without warning shutdown those sites?

The House Judicial Committee is holding hearings on Wednesday and the day has been observed by many as “American Censorship Day” to bring awareness to what is happening in Washington.

So what’s at stake? Quite a bit, as ArsTechnica notes:

The House bill is shockingly sympathetic to a narrow subsection of business interests. For instance, buried deep in the back of the >70-page document is a requirement that the US Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator prepare a study for Congress. That study should analyze “notorious foreign infringers” and attempt to quantify the “significant harm inflicted by notorious foreign infringers.” (Talk about assuming your conclusions before you start.)

The report, which is specifically charged to give weight to the views of content owners, requests a set of specific policy recommendations that might “encourage foreign businesses to adopt industry norms to promote the protection of intellectual property globally.” Should the bill pass, the US government would be explicitly charged with promoting private “industry norms”—not actual laws or treaties—around the world.

In the request for the report, we can also see the IP maximalist lobby preparing for its next move: shutting off access to US capital markets and preventing companies from “offering stock for sale to the public” in the US.

Not only that, but Michael Geist claims the bigger implications are jurisdictional:

The U.S. approach is breathtakingly broad, effectively treating millions of websites and IP addresses as “domestic” for U.S. law purposes.

For example, it defines a “domestic domain name” as a domain name “that is registered or assigned by a domain name registrar, domain name registry, or other domain name registration authority, that is located within a judicial district of the United States.” Since every dot-com, dot-net, and dot-org domain is managed by a domain name registry in the U.S., the law effectively asserts jurisdiction over tens of millions of domain names regardless of where the registrant actually resides.

Second, it defines “domestic Internet protocol addresses” – the numeric strings that constitute the actual address of a website or Internet connection – as “an Internet Protocol address for which the corresponding Internet Protocol allocation entity is located within a judicial district of the United States.” Yet IP addresses are allocated by regional organizations, not national ones. The allocation entity located in the U.S. is called ARIN, the American Registry for Internet Numbers. Its territory includes the U.S., Canada, and 20 Caribbean nations. This bill treats all IP addresses in this region as domestic for U.S. law purposes.

The new bills are bad for Internet freedom, bad for freedom in general, and bad for the free market.

They are good, however, for protecting the vested interests of a small subset of business, government and content creators. Is that something we really want right now?

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