There is a bill being pushed through congress that could potentially censor the internet for Americans. It’s the “Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act,” and this is what I’m doing about it.
COICA - Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act
What’s the dilemma, you say? Well, in the US (yeah, I know most of you are from the US anyways), there’s a bill that’s being pushed through the Senate called the Combatting Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act. The bill, which aims to virtually eliminate copyright infringement in the United States and curb copyright , is good. In theory.
The bill, however, seems to be written by people who not only have little understanding of the capabilities of the modern day user, but also have little regard for our country’s own constitution.
What am I talking about?
Quite a bit, actually. The bill functions like this: if a website is deemed, by a set of pre-defined, yet somewhat vague, rules, to function primarily as a provider of illegal content, then it can just be blacklisted. In other words, no one in the United States will be able to view it. Good in theory, right?
Get educated: A brief history on downloading.
Well, in theory. First of all, file sharing doesn’t work quite like the Senators who drafted this bill think it does. Back in the day (this is even before the wonders of Limewire), people would share things by hosting them on web servers and downloading them directly. In other words, a user would go to a website, click a link, and get content that didn’t legally belong to him.
Then people got smarter and started using Peer to Peer (or P2P) networks. In this way, every person who wants to share content gets a piece of client software that lets them browse the public files of every other person with this software and download from whomever they choose. This means that web servers no longer host content, but instead the content is hosted on another person’s computer somewhere. Thus, once the client has been downloaded to a user’s computer, the website no longer has anything to do with the content that is shared or distributed. Some common examples are Limewire (which has now been taken down) and Frostwire. I’m not sure why they like the word “wire” in their names.
After P2P came the “torrent” network. Now, instead of using a network to manage file sharing, servers managed the connections between computers. But this came with an advantage; instead of downloading content from just one computer, content was streamed from multiple computers at once in a “torrent” of information. This not only meant that the speed in which files were transfered could be increased, but it also meant that not just one single user was responsible for hosting the files being transfered. Websites, in a “torrent” setup, host small torrent files that essentially tell the users computers which servers to connect to.
What this bill would do.
If this bill would pass, the websites, which, as you can see, have less and less to do with the process of file sharing, would be blocked from United States viewers. Proxy servers, or servers outside the jurisdiction of the US blacklist, could serve up blacklisted content to American users at slightly slower rates (only because getting information through a proxy means the data has to bounce around the globe before it gets to you). This won’t stop illegal content from being sent from computer to computer all throughout America. In fact, it will do little apart from taking some potentially good websites offline.
The right to due process, or the right a citizen has to not be harmed by the government without respect for his or her rights, is a very important aspect of American society. You aren’t allowed to limit rights or impose punishments without a fair trial first. Not only would this bill remove free speech rights by removing websites without warning, but it would also do so without following due process.
But do you know what’s even scarier? Perfectly legitimate sites could be taken down. As David Segal, from the Huffington Post, points out, even sites as legitimate as Youtube could be taken down if a company provided a viable argument that enough of its users used it to listen to illegally posted music and watch infringing videos.
Here’s what I’m doing about it.
I’m a student in high school. There are tons of opportunities for me to take, but not all of them are as apparent as others. With the help of my American Government/Political Science teacher, I’m hoping to make at least some headway into what this bill is really about, what is going to happen to it, and what I can do to voice my own opinion. I’m going to keep a running log here about what I’ve been doing about this bill.
October 14, 2010
While browsing the web, I came across an article on the COICA. The website was a rather “The system’s corrupted, man!” type of site, so I did some of my own research. That’s when I came across the Huffington Post article.
October 17, 2010
I signed a petition against the bill on DemandProgress.org, a somewhat extreme site that seemed to be spearheading the attack against the bill.
DemandProgress.org's Anti-Blacklist campaign.
October 26th, 2010
I mentioned the bill to my Government teacher, who encouraged me to take further action. She pointed me towards the Center for Democracy and Technology, an interest group that seemed to fit my needs.
October 3oth, 2010
After playing phone tag for a few days, I was able to snag a phone conversation with a member of Senator Arlen Specter‘s staff. The representative gave me brief information on the bill, explained that would have sufficient checks to ensure that sites would not be wrongly blacklisted. She also stressed the fact that the owners of the site could argue a banned site or could change the site and be removed from the blacklist. I was still concerned, however, because the bill still blocked first and asked questions later, so to speak. The representative suggested I call Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy‘s office. The bill would be reviewed on the Judicial Committee before being sent to the Senate floor for a vote, and Senator Leahy was the head of the Judiciary Committee. It was worth a shot, I figured.
October 31st, 2010
I tried calling Senator Leahy’s office, but was not answered. Granted, it was a weekend and election day was three days away.
November 2nd, 2010
Election day. The House becomes Republican, while the Senate remains Democratic (although to a lesser degree). The reviewing of COICA has been pushed to a later date.
November 12th, 2010
The Judicial Committee markup of COICA has been scheduled for November 18th. Time is growing shorter. My teacher noted that the committee had not called in experts on the subject to testify for both sides of the bill (at least according to the Judicial Committee website‘s logs)
November 16th, 2010
I managed to get in contact with a member of Senator Leahy’s staff. I tried to ask what the views on the bill were among committee members, the likelihood of its passing, etc. , but the staff member merely told me that there were “thirteen co-sponsors,” that it had “bi-partisan approval,” and that “any other information on the bill could be found at Thomas.LOC.gov.” It wasn’t as helpful a call as I would have liked, but it told me where the bill stood, for the most part.
I called Senator Specter’s local office and left a personal message regarding my stance on the bill, along with my name and address. I didn’t think it would change his views on the bill (as he was a co-sponsor himself), but it was worth a try.
Additionally, a professor at Temple University, along with law professors at over fifty other prominent colleges, drafted and signed a letter stating their disgust with the bill. Here’s an excellent quote:
The Act, if enacted into law, will not survive judicial scrutiny, and will, therefore, never be used to address the problem (online copyright and trademark infringement) that it is designed to address. Its significance, therefore, is entirely symbolic – and the symbolism it presents is ugly and insidious… Even more significant and more troubling, the Act represents a retreat from the United States’ historical position as a bulwark and beacon against censorship and other threats to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and the free exchange of information and ideas around the globe.
At least now I know that I’m not just overlooking some political stipulations and actually have some sort of valid argument.
I received an email from Senator Leahy’s representative.
Here is a link to the press release on Senator Leahy’s website regarding the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act. The two bullet points below are from that press release and directly address your questions. Thank you for your inquiry.
- Provide safeguards allowing the domain name owner or site operator to petition the court to lift the order;
- Provide safeguards against abuse by allowing only the Justice Department to initiate an action, and by giving a federal court the final say about whether a particular site would be cut off from supportive services.
Well, first of all, that’s not my name, but it’s close enough. At any rate, it was nice of them to follow up with me. I’m still left without an answer with regards to due process, though.
November 18th, 2010.
The bill passed with a 19-o vote through the Judicial committee. Now I can only hope that it gets voted down in the Senate floor or that it is placed far enough back in the agenda that it doesn’t get time to be voted on until after January, when the 111th congress comes to an end.
November 20th, 2010
Apparently, Senator Ron Wyden, of Oregon, vehemently spoke out against the bill. He is quoted as having said the following:
“Deploying this statute to combat online copyright infringement seems almost like using a bunker-busting cluster bomb, when what you need is a precision-guided missile.”
My sentiments exactly, Senator Wyden. I’d like to call his office in the near future to confirm this quote and to thank him.
I left a thank-you message at the office of Senator Wyden. I figure my voice, coming all the way from Pittsburgh, will show that his efforts aren’t going unnoticed.
Today, the Department of Homeland Security seized over 70 domains, effectively doing what COICA was going to do anyways. Looks like my voice is having little effect in changing the government. Many of the sites seized weren’t in any sort of violation of copyright laws, containing no torrents, trackers, or illegal files of any sort. The Department of Homeland Security is refusing to say more than minor comments. I simply have to wait. And write more blog posts, of course.