Opinion

Could Congress shut down YouTube with Internet-blacklist bill?

The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) passed a Senate committee last year. If it becomes law, this flawed attempt to curtail online copyright infringement could spell big trouble for Internet freedom.

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A woman in China was sentenced last November to a year in prison for a satirical comment she made on Twitter, a social website the Chinese government had banned.

That same week, despite America’s open criticism of government censorship in China and Iran, the United States Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved an Internet censorship bill of its own: the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA). Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon effectively blocked the bill from passing the full Senate, but it could re-emerge this year.

An Internet 'blacklist'

Thankfully, an especially aggressive provision of the legislation that would have authorized the Department of Justice to create a formal list of offending sites was stripped this past fall. But the amended bill still contains features that would enable a de facto public “blacklist.” If it becomes law, COICA would not only be counterproductive to innovation and progress, but also diminish a constitutional right to free speech. Under this bill, entire websites could face serious repercussions if a court deemed copyright infringement “central to the activity of the website.” [Editor’s note: The original article failed to note a significant amendment to the bill this past fall and mischaracterized a potential penalty for websites.]

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President Obama claimed in an address to the United Nations in September that the United States would continue to support a “free and open Internet” and condemned current Internet restriction laws in other countries.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski also issued a statement following Mr. Obama’s speech in which he claimed, “It is essential that we preserve the open Internet and stand firmly behind the right of all people to connect with one another and to exchange ideas freely.”

If we don’t think China should be able to outlaw Twitter, perhaps we shouldn’t start banning websites in our own country. The good intention of protecting online media rights isn’t enough to merit hypocrisy.

Already laws in place

People should be paid for what they produce, and copyrighted material shouldn’t be distributed unlawfully; however, there are already laws in place to protect these rights, such as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA requires that copyrighted material be removed from infringing websites, but the websites on which they are found can remain active.

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The new COICA bill would take censorship to a new level in the United States. Under this bill, non-infringing material would be removed as well. [Editor’s note: The original version misstated one of the legislation's penalties.]

Though the bill is directed at pirating and file-sharing websites, there are countless other websites that could potentially be indicted if a court decides that enough people use them for copyright infringement.

YouTube, for example, is an Internet hub for sharing political and social thought as well as for creativity and entertainment. If COICA became law and a court deemed that a large-enough proportion of YouTube users were violating copyrights, YouTube could be blacklisted entirely.

A damaging double standard

COICA sends the wrong message to a generation of young Americans who rely on free Internet discussion for public discourse. And such blanket censorship by the US government would dangerously undercut America’s support for freedom of expression abroad. Censorship and “the land of the free” don’t have much in common, and it seems strange, particularly now, to combine them. Especially since our president has publicly claimed to oppose Internet restriction internationally.

The DMCA takedown process is already in place to protect copyright material in the US. The proper course of action is to use the laws we already have.

Perhaps the US Senate needs a dose of old wives’ wisdom: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Continue to police for copyright infringement, but don’t interfere with Internet innovation and technological growth.

Gina Tomaine is a freelance journalist who focuses on technology.

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