May 26, 2011

Why PROTECT IP Web Censorship Will Fail - But Lead to Much Worse

The U.S. Congress is continuing its headlong rush toward Internet control, along at least two fronts (see: "Let Them Eat Bits": How We Can Save Freedom On the Internet).

Legislation that would require data retention by ISPs regarding their users (except for wireless users, an exemption in the current bill already causing anger at the Justice Department) is now moving through Congress. As usual, the sponsors of this legislation are playing the "name game" by titling the legislation to imply its main purpose is to protect children from exploitation, while the legislation itself would permit the collected data to be used for a much broader range of purposes -- including presumably the uncovering of whistleblowers and other critical anonymous speech that any party wishes to target.

And again demonstrating the degree to which entrenched entertainment industry interests such as the MPAA and RIAA have gained a stranglehold over our representatives, the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, on a bipartisan, unanimous basis, approved the free speech decimating PROTECT IP Act, and passed it to the Senate floor.

To his credit, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who opposes PROTECT IP in its current form, immediately put a "hold" on the bill, but my assumption is that it will eventually be approved by the full Congress, much or entirely as it exists today.

The text of the legislation appears to still contain such abominations as an easily abused "private right to action" and expanded outright censorship of search engines and other "information location tools."

But a key aspect of PROTECT IP may have been missed by many observers. As it stands, the legislation, which primarily mandates DNS blocking and search engine censoring of affected sites, cannot possibly be effective, especially against sites that do not charge for materials and so would be unaffected by the bill's financial transaction cutoff provisions.

Additionally, a group of DNS experts has now released a paper detailing their serious technical concerns over PROTECT IP's plans to mangle DNS operations.

I continue to strongly believe that the time has come to move beyond the existing Domain Name System for a variety of technical and policy reasons, either to a fully distributed environment like IDONS (Internet Distributed Open Name System) or something else that fulfills the same essential goals.

For now though, it is obvious to anyone who understands how the Internet really functions that PROTECT IP cannot possibly block access to sites to the degree that those who would trample free speech for their own economic gain will desire.

Even if specific sites' domain names are not resolved by ISPs, routes to those sites via other indices and direct IP addresses will continue to be available, and I would expect various associated workarounds to greatly expand. For those persons outside U.S. jurisdiction, the PROTECT IP "DNS mutilation" orders would not even apply in the first place -- their access would presumably continue completely unimpeded in most cases.

So what's the real point of all this? It's almost as if PROTECT IP is designed to fail.

And that may be exactly the plan. If PROTECT IP fails to control piracy as its proponents promise, even with its outright unconstitutional trampling of search engine free speech rights and the rights of many other Internet stakeholders, the pressure will be enormous to come back with even harsher and more punitive legislation.

I've already had the unnerving experience of recently hearing directly from Congressional staffers who have told me that language mandating phased moves toward what I'd view as a hierarchically controlled and government dictated, China-style Internet, is already being quietly worked on by certain legislators and their allies in the entertainment and national security realms.

I'm told that such legislation would of course be carried on a buffet of ostensible justifications, ranging from economics and security, to child protection. As close to total government control over Internet content -- and in particular search engine results -- as can be pushed through the courts is the ultimate goal.

But it is understood that such an endgame is unlikely to be reached except in smaller steps. And the first of those steps into this censorship pit is PROTECT IP.

There are some very smart people, at very high levels, doing very long-range planning on how to remake the Internet into a finely-tuned instrument for government control over virtually all aspects of technological communications.

Anyone (or any company) who speaks out strongly against such a scenario must be prepared to be falsely branded as pro-piracy, anti-American, pro-child abuse, and probably even worse by the enemies of free speech.

But just as few people would be willing to install government-controlled cameras in every room of their houses -- even though the law enforcement benefits might be significant -- we must fight the false assertion that the Internet should be essentially turned into an adjunct of government in the name of trying to protect outdated business models and the trampling of our most basic liberties.

Like Pandora's Box of legend, or the notorious "Puzzle Box" of the Hellraiser films, there are ideas that may seem attractive to many on the outside, but once engaged will lead inexorably to extraordinarily deep and nightmarish hells.

Such is PROTECT IP. Congress is preparing to open the PROTECT IP box. And in the process, they'll be damning free speech, and all of us, along with themselves.


Posted by Lauren at May 26, 2011 11:52 AM | Permalink
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