The extremism destroying the Internet's content promise

An idiotic Senate bill, copyright trolls, and Big Entertainment are threatening freedom of information -- will they destroy legitimate Internet content in the process?

I believe in protecting intellectual property -- mine and other people's. I want to be paid for my work as a writer, and I'm willing to pay for what I use, whether it's a track from a CD, a book, or a software application. And I have no patience for the ethic that says if it's digital it should be free. However, the long-running effort by the music industry, the Business Software Alliance, and others to crack down on piracy and copyright violations is spawning a monster.

The most egregious example, of course, was the thuggish farce conducted by the Russian government under the guise of protecting Microsoft's copyrights. Authorities ransacked the offices of political opponents with no regard for what was actually on their hard drives or whether they had pirated copies of Microsoft software.

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There are a host of other, less dramatic examples that underline the danger the copyright monster poses to everyone who uses the Internet. Most worrisome is an ill-conceived bill making its way through the U.S. Senate that would give the Justice Department the ability to block access to sites that are dedicated (whatever that means) to infringing copyright. It's called the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA).

This is terrible and unnecessary bill, considering there are plenty of antipiracy laws already on the books. The fact that it's bipartisan illustrates the hold the entertainment industry and its big campaign contributions has on Congress. Not the least of its problems is the potential to disrupt the DNS registry, a bit of collateral damage that would punish all of us for the transgressions of a few.

Meanwhile, Cox Communications and several other Internet service providers are misrepresenting the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, better known as the DMCA, and using that mistaken interpretation of the law to disconnect users who allegedly are downloading and sharing copyrighted material.

If all that wasn't bad enough, we're also seeing the rise of patent trolls, companies whose major source of revenue is suing other companies for alleged copyright violations, in much the same way other companies exist largely to sue over patent violations. (Remember SCO's laughable claim to ownership of Unix? And now we have Oracle using copyright claims to strong-arm Google over its Android OS.)

Blacklisting domains
COICA would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek a preliminary court order against any website that it determines is peddling copyrighted material and counterfeit goods. All U.S.-based domain registrars, Internet service providers, and other operators of a DNS server will then be required to prevent access to any domain name that has been served with such a court order. Think what that will do to the tightly intertwined systems of links, feeds, and the like.

The law also would allow the U.S. attorney general to compile a separate list of websites that the Justice Department "determines are dedicated to infringing activities" but for which no court order has been sought. Internet service providers, domain registrars, and others will not be required to block access to such sites. However, any provider that does block access would have full immunity from any legal action under the bill. In other words, there's a great incentive for a service provider to shoot first and ask questions later -- after someone's business has already been ruined.

It also appears that's there no provision for judicial review, so getting off that list will be very difficult.

It's not just civil liberties types who are alarmed over this bill. Earlier this week, 87 prominent Internet engineers sent a joint letter to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, opposing it. "If enacted, this legislation will risk fragmenting the Internet's global domain name system, create an environment of tremendous fear and uncertainty for technological innovation, and seriously harm the credibility of the United States in its role as a steward of key Internet infrastructure," they wrote.

Trolling for copyright violations
Having no interested in being sued for libel, I'm not going to call anyone a copyright troll. But consider these cases.

Righthaven has brought more than 100 lawsuits in a Nevada federal court claiming copyright infringement. They find cases by searching the Internet for parts of newspaper stories posted online by individuals, nonprofits, political organizations, and others; buying the copyright to that newspaper story; and suing the operator of the website for copyright infringement, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Note that Righthaven isn't the publisher; it merely buys the copyright from the publisher and then sues. "Righthaven relies on the threat of copyright liability (and in a unique twist, an entirely bogus threat of loss of the target's domain name) to scare the posters into a quick settlement. Reported settlements have fallen between $2,000 and $3,000," says the EFF.

The U.S. Copyright Group approaches independent film producers and offers to collect money from people who are illegally downloading their movies on BitTorrent. Once they figure out who's done the downloading (all it takes is a subpoena of the Internet service provider), they then sue those individuals for $150,000 per downloaded movie. Freaked-out defendants generally are willing to settle for $1,500 to $2,000.

That sort of thing makes a mockery of the judicial process. Injured parties -- in this case, companies or artists who have been ripped off -- should (and do) have the right to sue, of course. But third parties who buy rights for the sole purpose of finding and suing a violator are doing nothing to protect artists, publishers, or independent developers.

Similarly, sites that really do exist to rip off content that others labor to create deserve to be punished. But there are plenty of laws that enable injured parties to hit back. We don't need the huge hammer now being forged in Congress.

We need an adult discussion about copyrights, a discussion that both avoids slogans like "content deserves to be free" and avoids panicked pandering to the entertainment industry.

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This article, "The extremism destroying the Internet's content promise," was originally published by Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at