Stop Washington from censoring the Internet

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Congress has been in a constitutionally feisty mood lately. Shortly before taking off for its traditional Christmas recess, for example, it passed the annual defense authorization bill, which included a troubling provision that apparently permits the U.S. military to indefinitely detain anyone — including American citizens — it suspects of having even remote ties to any group it has determined to be linked to terrorism.

Now, in what would be another serious blow to our liberties, which are supposed to be protected against government intrusion, some members of Congress are pushing legislation that would greatly impede our freedom to communicate over the Internet. The inaptly named “Stop Online Privacy Act” (SOPA) would supposedly protect intellectual property rights, but in effect would dramatically enhance the power of the federal government to block websites it suspects infringe intellectual property rights or simply promote the distribution of copyrighted content.

In recent years, efforts by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to shut down websites suspected of selling counterfeit goods, including handbags and DVDs, have resulted in tens of thousands of websites being wrongly shut down. Not surprisingly, the government is slow to ever acknowledge such errors, despite significant costs to the private websites wrongly silenced.

Making it even easier for the government to close down websites — which SOPA would do — is unnecessary and almost certainly would dramatically increase the number of sites closed due to mistakes or overreactions by federal investigators. Such a move would constitute a clear violation of free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment to our Constitution.

This legislation also would endanger Internet innovation. As explained recently by Mark Lemley, David Levine, and David Post at The Stanford Law Review, these measures would “take aim not only at the Internet’s core technical infrastructure, but at its economic and commercial infrastructure as well.” They explain that SOPA and another bill (PROTECT IP) would force financial institutions and advertisers to cut ties with suspected sites, potentially costing the sites a substantial amount of money in the process.

SOPA is expected to come up before the House Judiciary Committee in January. Hopefully by that time, individuals, civil liberties organizations, private businesses, and Internet experts will have communicated to Congress the very real constitutional and free-market defects in this legislation and ensured its defeat.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He provides regular commentary to Daily Caller readers.