Today, Congress is holding hearings on the first American Internet Censorship System. The legislation combines the Protect IP Act, which has been introduced in the Senate, and a House version known as the Stop Online Piracy Act. Many web experts have likened the bills to China’s Great Firewall, but could the legislation, if passed, really have such a dramatic affect on the way Americans use the internet?
Fundamentally, the bills would give the attorney general the power to block sites, Internet service providers, search engines, payment providers and advertising networks, without a court hearing or a trial. The House version goes further by allowing private companies to sue service providers for even briefly and unknowingly hosting content that infringes on copyright. This is quite the contrast from current law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which protects the service providers from civil liability if they remove the content in question as soon as they have been notified.
Three potentially major challenges therefore are brought to light:
1. Freedom of speech. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have played an important role in political movements from Egypt to Occupy Wall Street. At present, social networking services are protected to some extent the DMCA, which grants Web sites immunity from prosecution as long as they do their best to take down the infringing content as soon as they are aware of it. The House bill, if it goes through, would remove this immunity, putting the onus on YouTube to vet videos in advance or risk prosecution.
2. Website Blocking. The government can order service providers to block websites for infringing links posted by any users. This could mean that many company websites that are currently protected by the DMCA could be taken down therefore resulting in job losses. Additionally, internet firms would be hit by the financial burden of spending on staff and technologies dedicated to monitoring users and censorship. This in turn would be a deterrent for start-up companies, making it much harder for entrepreneurs with limited resources to create small and innovative Internet companies such as Facebook and Google that are now some of the world’s leading corporations.
3. Risk of Jail for Ordinary Users. It becomes a felony with a potential 5 year sentence to stream a copyrighted piece of work that would cost more than $2,500 to license. An individual could be prosecuted for being even a noncommercial user, e.g. singing a pop song on YouTube.
It’s a double edged sword. Regulations exist for a reason, but if the American Internet Censorship System legislation does go through, the Internet and it’s use a medium for free speech will never be the same again in the “land of the free.”