September 21, 2010

Copyright, Censorship, and Domain Name Blacklists at Home in the U.S.

Filed under: Chilling Effects, Internet, censorship, copyright, trademark — wseltzer @ 12:33 pm

Last week, The New York Times reported that Russian police were using copyright allegations to raid political dissidents, confiscating the computers of advocacy groups and opposition newspapers “under the pretext of searching for pirated Microsoft software.” Admirably, Microsoft responded the next day with a declaration of license amnesty to all NGOs:

To prevent non-government organizations from falling victim to nefarious actions taken in the guise of anti-piracy enforcement, Microsoft will create a new unilateral software license for NGOs that will ensure they have free, legal copies of our products.

Microsoft’s authorization undercuts any claim that its software is being infringed, but the Russian authorities may well find other popular software to use as pretext to disrupt political opponents.

“Piracy” has become the new tax evasion, an all-purpose charge that can be lobbed against just about anyone. If the charge alone can prompt investigation — and any electronics could harbor infringing copies — it gives authorities great discretion to interfere with dissidents.

That tinge of censorship should raise grave concern here in the United States, where Patrick Leahy and Orrin Hatch, with Senate colleagues, have introduced the “Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act.” (PDF).

This Bill would give the Attorney General the power to blacklist domain names of sites “offering or providing access to” unauthorized copyrighted works “in complete or substantially complete form, by any means, including by means of download, transmission, or otherwise, including the provision of a link or aggregated links to other sites or Internet resources for obtaining such copies for accessing such performance or displays”; as well as those offering items with counterfeit trademarks. The AG could obtain court orders, through “in rem” proceedings against the domains, enjoining the domain name registrars or registries from resolving the names. Moreover, in the case of domains without a U.S. registrar or registry, other service providers, financial transaction providers, and even advertising servers could be caught in the injunctive net.

While the Bill makes a nod to transparency by requiring publication of all affected domain names, including those the Department of Justice “determines are dedicated to infringing activities but for which the Attorney General has not filed an action under this section,” it then turns that information site into a invitation to self-censorship, giving legal immunity to all who choose to block even those names whose uses’ alleged illegality has not been tested in court. (Someone who is listed must petition, under procedures to be determined by the AG, to have names removed from the list.)

Finally, the statute’s warped view — that allegations of infringement can only be good — is evident in the public inputs it anticipates. The public and intellectual property holders shall be invited to provide information about “Internet sites that are dedicated to infringing activities,” but there is no provision for the public to complain of erroneous blockage or lawful sites mistakenly or maliciously included in the blacklist.

Hollywood likes the Bill. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of reason to believe that allegations of infringement will be misused here in the United States. Even those who oppose infringement of copyright and trademark (myself included) should oppose this censorious attempt to stop it.

Cross-posted at Freedom to Tinker.

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