Internet Censorship on America’s Doorstep via COICA: Free Speech in Jeopardy

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The worldwide web is perhaps the most democratically friendly invention since the printing press was rolled out by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450.  Besides its more typical uses for entertainment, commerce, and social networking, the internet acts as a universal portal by which I can connect to a friend in Japan or a protester in Libya.  Indeed, the internet is credited with much of the mobilization across the middle east that has resulted in the manifestation of democratic principles. Many of us followed the protests in Cairo via twitter not only because this social medium is live, but more importantly, because it transmitted the protests directly from the protesters themselves – a rare phenomenon among mass media outlets around the world.  As I type this, I Facebook friends in Oregon, search for the latest read on Amazon, and follow the struggle of middle-class America in Wisconsin.  The web has revolutionized everything on the planet because it has revolutionized the one fundamental aspect of our lives – our mode of communication.  In effect, the basic premise of the internet is its inherent decentralization of information and communication – a patently paradoxical development to the centralization of our federal government.

Perhaps then, the recent bill put forward by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to censor internet traffic is considered by those behind the proverbial iron curtain as the next logical step for effective government expansion.  The Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA) has been on the congressional docket since it unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last November (a list of the 19 Senators who voted for COICA).  Backed by the recording industry and much of Hollywood, the feds claim the bill combats growing issues of copyright infringement across the net. Effectively, it would allow the Attorney General to issue an order of seizure for any domain name system (DNS) on grounds of it being “dedicated to infringing activities.” Such ambiguous language is increasingly more typical of federal statutory law and is responsible for much of the outrage, namely that the bill is a threat to free speech and privacy via censorship.  Mike Masnick of does a nice job explaining why COICA is not simply a bill to combat copyright infringement, but is a “bill for censorship.”

Not all of Washington is behind COICA however.  According to Media Freedom International, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) successfully blocked the bill last November.  But in December, Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seized eighty-two domain names and ten more last month to much controversy on the legality of such measures.  Electronic Frontier Foundation highlights the implications of ICE’s seizures on COICA.

We’ve gotten an early glimpse of how this provision might play out through recent enforcement efforts by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) involving the seizure of domain names. The latest ICE action highlights an important point about COICA: the bill would take a seizure mechanism available under criminal copyright law and make it explicitly available in a civil context as well….

Criminal copyright infringement is infringement committed “willfully” and in the context of various specific circumstances. Significantly, the websites targeted in the most recent ICE action appear to have merely linked to infringing content. That is, they did not themselves violate any of the exclusive rights of copyright owners that would constitute direct infringement. The ICE agent who signed the affidavit explicitly states that the ten seized domains point to what he calls “linking” websites—i.e., websites that contain “links to files on third party websites that contain illegal copies of copyrighted content.” (He also points out that these linking sites “are popular because they allow users to quickly browse content and locate illegal streams that would otherwise be more difficult to find.” Sound like any search engines you know?)”

The dangers of COICA and any similar legislation are very real for all Americans.  Specifically, COICA mandates compliance from all communications services including encrypted e-mail providers such as Blackberry and social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Skype.  Daily Censored’s Irene North explains the disregarded dangers to which many Americans remain ignorant or simply ignore.

“The average voter is almost completely unaware of this situation. They are either uninformed or don’t care about wiretapping. The AT&T scandal passed them by and they believe that their lives are pretty much the same as ten years ago. If they do happen to be informed, they don’t understand that this technology is directed right at them…

Americans in particular should be concerned, given the fact that the government is trying to legalize spying on its own citizens. They can already declare American citizens as terrorists simply by what they say, as well as trying American citizens as terrorists outside of civilian courts. Given the privacy implications to remove secure and private communications, the government can determine on their own whether or not you are a threat. This means any type of political dissent could potentially be quashed by labeling you a terrorist and removing you from public life?”

Moreover, North highlights a repeatedly ignored aspect of broad legislation, namely that the targets of such legislation will be the only parties equipped with effective workarounds.  “Any terrorist who knows what he/she is doing will have written their own encryption that isn’t accessible to any government and they certainly aren’t giving out the master keys for decryption.”  This familiar complaint is also made clear over Second Amendment rights to bear arms. Simply outlawing guns is not going to deter an individual already engaging in illegal activities.  In addition to COICA’s infringement of liberties, it also has economic consequences as well.  The Cato Institute notes the extraordinary burdens this legislation would place on outside parties, particularly increased transaction costs.

“Under COICA, when the attorney general accused a domain name of being “dedicated” to copyright infringement, the courts would issue orders not against the owners of the domain name (who may be overseas) but against domain-name registrars and the operators of DNS servers here in the United States. This means that thousands of systems administrators would be required to maintain a large and constantly-changing list of blacklisted domains. This is a significant and unfair administrative burden on private parties who have absolutely no connection to infringing activities.”

Degrees of ambiguity in legislation leave more room for statutes to be used for equally ambiguous purposes, which often entail additional bureaucratic burdens on outside parties.  Perhaps then such burdens beg the question as to why the legislation is deemed necessary in the first place.  Senator Leahy’s original rational played on the financial fears of the public.  He stated:

“Copyright piracy and the sale of counterfeit goods are reported to cost the American economy billions of dollars annually and hundreds of thousands of lost jobs. That is why inaction is not an option, and we must pass online infringement legislation in this Congress before rogue websites harm more businesses, and result in more lost jobs.”

This seems to be the ace-in-the-whole for Washington politicians and bureaucrats alike.  Just scare the public into submission via scenarios of terrorist plots and financial Armageddon, and they will back any legislation proposed, no matter how invasive.

Check back for more to come on this fascinating betrayal of liberty.


Considering that the COICA bill resurface in the middle of last month, here is a decent list of some more recent sources. Courtesy of the theneointellectual.


About Jeremiah Dow
I have a B.S. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics with a minor in Economics. I finished school in 2010 and am currently working on independent research in various areas including political and economic philosophy, government, and history. I am also currently looking for work in research, particularly the social sciences dealing with public policy work. I aspire to a top-level graduate institution, but would first prefer some professional research experience. Some of my primary influences are Ayn Rand, Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn among others.

One Response to Internet Censorship on America’s Doorstep via COICA: Free Speech in Jeopardy

  1. Pingback: First Amendment to the United States Constitution – Freedom of Expression is a Basic Human Right |

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