Opinion: House bill could lead to online censorship



Kyle McDonald

Ladies and gentlemen, online free speech is on the brink of becoming censored. Last year, a bill was introduced to the House, which, had it been passed, would have allowed the Department of Justice to shut down any web domain where copyright infringement is perceived as “central to its activity.”

This bill, titled the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, allows the creation of a list of Internet domains to be blocked by Internet service providers. The Attorney General would have the power to add sites to the list through court order. Once a site is added to the list, its hosting and revenue are blocked, effectively shutting it down.

Before Congress dismissed last year, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon managed to put a halt on it, preventing it from moving any further, but that does not mean it is dead. It has plenty of potential and lobbying grease to reemerge this year.

I’ll acknowledge that the bill, also known as the “Internet Blacklist,” has a noble purpose. Downloading copyrighted material is, in fact, stealing, which is illegal. I completely understand the government’s motivation to crack down on piracy. When illegal downloading became widespread years ago, the music, publishing and film industries were flipped on their heads, and now they’re still scrambling for a way to combat this issue.

My problem with this bill is that its definition of a site dedicated to infringing activity is far too broad. Our beloved YouTube could become a prime target for the blacklist under the definition of copyrighted material being central to its activity. There are already laws in place that protect copyrighted material, and YouTube adheres to them, removing anything that is posted without permission and rights.

Opponents of the bill argue it is a violation of the First Amendment and limits free speech. I couldn’t agree more. While websites like YouTube, RapidShare, The Hype Machine, SoundCloud and more have users wrongfully posting copyrighted material, they have plenty of content that does not violate the law. Completely shutting down these sites would be a censorship on users who are causing zero harm.

If this bill becomes law, it could also become a precedent for limiting more types of online speech. While the U.S. explicitly condemns other countries such as China and India that censor Internet sites from their citizens, I am astounded by the large support behind the bill in the House.

Content and communications protected by the First Amendment in our country are already censored in other countries. If this bill is passed, other world regimes could use it as a way to legitimize censorship, making it more difficult for the U.S. to condemn such practices.

If the government wants to effectively crack down on illegal file sharing, they need to find a way to do so without taking away free speech.

More information and an online petition to stop the blacklist bill can be found at demandprogress.org/blacklist/coica.

Kyle McDonald is a senior magazine journalism major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. You can contact him at [email protected].