The next government power grab: censoring the Internet

Patrick Ruffini Contributor
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With the nation’s looming fiscal crisis, soaring energy costs, and a tense situation in the Middle East, this might seem like an odd time for Congress to mount a full-court press for a bill designed to advance the well-being of Charlie Sheen and his Hollywood colleagues. That’s precisely what’s happening this week with new House hearings on the anti-piracy bill known as COICA.

COICA may be a bit challenged in the naming department, but it is perhaps the most serious threat to liberty to gain Republican support in this Congress. When constitutional conservatives look at who’s pushing COICA (Hollywood studios, Chris Dodd’s MPAA, and Patrick Leahy) and what it does (giving Eric Holder’s Justice Department virtually unchecked power to shut down parts of the Internet), that may change in a hurry.

Senator Leahy’s COICA bill is Internet censorship cloaked in anodyne “anti-piracy” language. It gives the Obama administration the ability to shut down so-called “rogue” websites without warning, effectively breaking the Internet by redirecting traffic away from the true domain name of a website. Known as DNS blocking, this insidious practice mirrors the Internet censorship practices of anti-freedom despots from Beijing to Tehran to the late regime in Cairo, giving dictators carte blanche from America to stifle Internet traffic so vital to the democratic revolutions sweeping the Middle East.

As happens anytime government regulates something it doesn’t understand, COICA would do virtually nothing to advance its stated intent — preventing piracy — while putting the U.S. government on the side of censorship. First, the government would be powerless to remove the actual pirated content from the Internet. Users can always access pirate sites — or any site — by entering the site’s numeric IP address. Just type in, and voila! you’ve got a COICA-proof version of The Daily Caller’s website. At best, removing domain name access would be the digital equivalent of giving a bad actor an unlisted number for the 15 minutes it takes them to register a new domain name. Also, it is ridiculously easy to circumvent COICA by changing the settings on your computer to use offshore, pirate-friendly, and potentially insecure DNS servers.

In exchange for tissue-paper thin protections against piracy, COICA would grant the Obama administration the power to tamper with the domain name system — the only thing that guarantees that when you enter a website address, you get the website you’re looking for. It may not sound like it, but this is a huge, huge deal. If such breaches of the domain name system became the rule, rogue operators could redirect eBay, Amazon, or your bank website to their own with impunity, stealing your credit card information or your very identity. Our rivals around the world would almost certainly retaliate against legitimate American websites. And the implications for dissidents abroad would be immediate and clear. Despite the decent soundings made about Internet freedom, COICA would place the U.S. government on the side of the censors, sanctioning DNS blocking (or worse) in tyrannical regimes.

A lack of a clear legislative mandate isn’t stopping this latest administration power grab. Operating under murky legal authority, Janet Napolitano’s Homeland Security Department has already begun seizing websites right and left, COICA-like. In most cases, these mostly obscure websites were back up on new domains within the hour — and flouting their newfound celebrity status in heavily retweeted posts on Twitter. In other cases, the seizures triggered serious constitutional concerns, as most of the content taken down was in the form of discussions and commentary almost certainly protected under the First Amendment. And in one epic blunder, Homeland Security “accidentally” took down 84,000 sites, replacing them with a banner implicating the individuals and small businesses behind them in a child porn sting. And the agency leading the charge? DHS’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Instead of protecting the border, the Obama administration apparently believes it’s more important to protect its friends in Hollywood.

COICA is only the latest in a string of shockingly dumb ideas to gain wide currency on Capitol Hill. In part, this speaks to the lobbying power of the Hollywood studios, which, despite exerting a powerful leftward tug on our culture, have been especially adept at spreading campaign cash to both sides. And in part, it also represents an unfortunate lack of technical knowledge on the Hill, where the glitz, glamour and cash of the studios grabs more attention than the mundane technical details of things like DNS that are essential to our freedom online.

The studios’ PR strategy has been to make easy analogies with the offline world in a medium where the same rules don’t apply. In an interview with Ars Technica, COICA proponent Daniel Castro admitted, “It may not even be 90 percent effective,” adding “You never stop all crime; the point is, can you reduce it to a tolerable level?” That’s almost certainly about 85% or so too optimistic. The problem with crime-fighting analogies is that in the physical world, you can disrupt drug pushers by limiting them to one of ten street corners. Online, where there is no limit to how many people can congregate on a virtual street corner, or how quickly they can get there, you can’t. To use a more appropriate digital analogy, it doesn’t matter whether 1 or 10,000 people first get wind of the latest Rebecca Black video. Tens of millions will eventually experience the awfulness as it spreads virally.

No one condones piracy in any form, and experience has taught us that the only effective way to deter it is through the free market — by making it as easy to consume content online as it is offline, either by selling it or offering it for free with advertising. Legal threats or legislative chicanery didn’t stop rampant illegal music downloads from dominating the online music market; easy, legal downloads through iTunes did that. Despite Chicken Little warnings about the Internet from industry lobbyists, Hollywood had a banner year last year, racking up record box-office earnings.

This is why grassroots activists and Internet users on both sides of the political spectrum are calling out Congress for a radically unbalanced bill that gives the Obama administration unprecedented power to seize websites without warning while doing little to deter piracy. The new Republican majority has made preventing government control of the Internet a signature priority. Let’s see whether they actually mean it.

Patrick Ruffini is a partner of the digital media firm Engage, a former RNC internet director, and co-founded Don’t Censor the Net.