Slippery censorship slope

By Luke Wilusz

The U.S. House of Representatives proposed legislation on Oct. 26 that would boost the Justice Department’s authority to censor websites that illegally host or distribute copyrighted material. While it’s good that the government is protecting intellectual property, and I agree that artists deserve to be recognized—and more importantly, paid for their work—the wording of the proposed “Stop Online Piracy Act” is far too broad, and I think it oversteps the bounds of what the government should be able to do.

While I like to support artists for their work, I think supporting a free and open Internet is even more important. When you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, this bill is little more than Internet censorship. It would allow the Justice Department to get court orders demanding that U.S. Internet service providers stop rendering the domain name systems for websites deemed to be in violation of the law, essentially making them inaccessible in the U.S. The government would also be able to order search engines like Google to filter such sites out of their results. The bill could also be interpreted as punishing journalists or media outlets if they publish any information about workarounds to allow people to access the blacklisted sites.

This is, in essence, exactly the sort of thing the Chinese government does to prevent its citizens from accessing undesirable sites. Google struck a similar deal with China a few years ago and took a lot of heat for it from just about every civil liberties group in the country. Meanwhile, a bill that could lead to similar Orwellian measures in America is receiving popular bipartisan support. If the government gains the authority to block these sites, it could be used as a precedent to justify further censorship in the future. As far as slopes go, this one seems pretty slippery.

The worst part is that it reads like legislation written by lobbyists, for lobbyists. The interests of the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America would be served by this law more than anything else, and many critics are quick to point it out as a textbook example of the influence of money on politics. While I have a sinking feeling this bill has enough support on both sides of the aisle to pass, I hope enough people speak out to stop it or make it less broad. If we don’t look out for our own freedoms, nobody else is going to do it for us.