The U.S. Congress is proposing a bill that could affect free speech on the Internet.
The bill, titled Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, could give the government censoring privileges similar to those of governments in China and Iran.
“It’s a clear violation of free speech,” Ankur Gupta, assistant professor of computer science at Butler University, said. “I don’t think that the government can get away with this.”
According to The Huffington Post, “COICA creates two blacklists of Internet domain names. Courts could add sites to the first list; the attorney general would have control over the second.”
Many fear such actions could very well be the beginning of a slippery slope, opening the doors for more Internet censorship.
Large companies that own copyright are largely behind the push to implement this bill.
Intellectual property accounts for $5 trillion in revenue and 18 million jobs, things backers of the bill say are crucial to the current economic state.
These companies believe that many Web sites, intentionally or unintentionally, infringe copyright, said The Huffington Post.
The bill would make it easier to simply blacklist Web sites with dubious content, making them unavailable to everyone.
Many people are taking issue with the definition of what qualifies as content worthy of censoring.
“Who knows what those requirements really are because they’re not defined very clearly and carefully,” Gupta said.
There is a difference between removing copyrighted content and giving the government an option to blacklist sites for any reason they find offensive, he said.
“If you’re uploading copyrighted content with the intention of allowing an unlimited audience to view it, then you have violated copyright and you should be prosecuted in the way copyright is prosecuted,” Gupta said.
Large companies have been prosecuting copyright violations ever since the advent of file-sharing technologies.
Demandprogress.org argues that this bill seeks to circumvent even that process and simply block a Web site without prosecuting it and giving it a chance to defend itself.
“The Internet has been the ultimate incarnation of freedom of speech,” senior Kyle Snyder said. “While I understand that piracy is an issue, I don’t think the government should have control over an international digital space as if it is their property.”
“The government’s control over the internet service providers, and thus over what we can and cannot see on the Internet sets a bad precedent, and puts our liberty at stake,” Snyder said.
Many organizations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are fighting to keep the Internet as free and open to the exchange of information as possible.
There is a petition at demandprogresss.org, which make over 98,000 have signed so far.
“Talk to your senators or representatives,” Gupta said. “Tell them to vote against these kinds of things. Get involved with the EFF.”
According to the Huffington Post, “The lists are for sites ‘dedicated to infringing activity,’ but that’s defined very broadly—any domain name where counterfeit goods or copyrighted material are ‘central to the activity of the Internet site’ could be blocked.”
The vagueness of this definition has been problematic for the many lawmakers that feel the prospect of Internet censorship is something that many Americans should seriously consider when it comes to their First Amendment rights.
The bill, in the first stage of the legislative process, and has been delayed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It will not be voted on until after midterm recess.