Patriot Act for the Internet a Bad Idea

When there is wide-spread unlawful behavior, there’s a temptation for many to implement draconian measures.  Whether the threat is terrorism, or illegal immigration, or controlled substances, the suggested counters have often been too far reaching.  One has to be careful that the laws proposed are not more detrimental to society than the cure.

I worry about the threat of terrorism but I don’t want the the executive branch to have unlimited power to surveil innocent citizens or detain suspected terrorists without any thought of due process.  Illegal immigration is indeed a problem but huge electrified fences are not the solution.  I despise wanton drug use but one cannot argue how ineffective (and expensive) the war on drugs has been.

There is currently a bill in House called the Stop Online Piracy Act that makes the same mistake in the area of copyright violations.

It’s purportedly designed to thwart music and movie piracy by empowering copyright holders to isolate and shut down websites or online services found with infringing content. SOPA is the House version of the bill, introduced by Representative Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), and there’s another in the Senate called the Protect IP Act, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Hearings on SOPA began Wednesday, and the chances it’ll pass are excellent, because it’s backed by powerful business lobbies and has bipartisan majority support in both the House and Senate. If it does pass, the only thing that could shut it down would be a veto by President Obama.


In short, SOPA, if passed, would allow the U.S. government to blacklist any website found to have infringing material, inhibiting access to said sites using DNS filtering techniques similar to those employed by China and Iran. What’s “infringing material”? Anything deemed in violation of copyright, say a few posts by users in a web forum or on a social network—even links sent in email.

There is no doubt that the internet is full of illegally copied material and that fact is no doubt frustrating to the lawful producers of that material.  But the SOPA gives the government far too much discretion as to who is guilty of violations.   Consider the case of YouTube, where copyright violations happen every day.  The proper way to handle it is the way it is handled currently.  Google is already very responsive to copyright complaints and frequently takes down videos.

Under the proposed legislation, the government could shut down all of YouTube because of a few incorrectly posted videos.  It is unreasonable to assume that Google could control millions of videos being posted every day.  And the value of YouTube to society is indeed that millions of people can post those videos every day.  Entertainment value aside, YouTube is an excellent resource for citizen journalists.  When some moronic OWS protester commits a crime, it can appear on YouTube within minutes straight from the cell phone of a witness.  You has better believe that the legal pressure to shut down YouTube (and a number of similar sites) would be immense should such a law be passed.

The SOPA create an untenable requirement on service providers.  It suggests the equivalent of the government being authorized to shut down all McDonald’s because one teenage employee in one store pulls some dumb prank at 2 AM.  In short, it give the government too much power and the government has proved time and time again that it is too large and to driven by partisan politics to be trusted with such power.

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