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Congress Wants to Censor the Internet. Tell Them No.

November 16, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The internet is the most important innovation for democracy of our time. With the internet citizens are empowered to be creators of information, not just passive consumers, and they’re networked so exchange happens peer-to-peer, not through some central authority. These properties threaten the model of control that has long been pushed by authorities, be they corporate or governmental.

The fight over openness on the internet is a fundamental struggle about who has power in society. Today in the United States, the House of Representatives is taking a major step towards creating the first ever U.S. internet censorship system, using the same DNS technology that China uses for censorship. The bill is called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and it would allow the government to demand ISPs and search engines to block websites and give private companies power to cut off access to sites without taking legal action. It’s receiving a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee today and is expected to get a vote in the full House soon.

The bill threatens every site that allows users to post content by undermining long-standing DMCA safeharbors that currently protect sites that operate in good faith to remove copyright-infringing content. Under the language of the bill, a single infringing link posted by a user to would be enough to allow the government or a corporation to shut down the entire site. What makes the bill an especially powerful tool for censorship is that it gives legal immunity to companies that cut off sites as long as they have a “reasonable belief” that the site contains infringing material, or even if they believe the site is not doing enough to fight infringement. (For a more detailed rundown of problems and implications of the bill, see this 2-page summary from the Center for Democracy and Technology.)

The powers of the Stop Online Piracy Act are aimed exactly at the aspects of the internet that give it its democratic power. If it becomes law, our platform for decentralized, vertical exchange of ideas falls under the grips of the old power structures it threatens. This is the most important piece of internet legislation in U.S. history.

The Participatory Politics Foundation is proud to be a part of the American Censorship Day coalition. Please join us in taking action to stop this bill today. If you have a website of any size, add the Censorship Day splash page to spread this to your audience (info here). In addition, we urge you to take a minute to contact your members of Congress and tell them that you oppose this bill.

As it stands, this bill is going to become law very soon. Congressional leaders from both parties and in both chambers support it, and it has backing from big-money campaign donors from unions to Hollywood to financial companies. If we don’t fight back right now, the internet will forever be a less open, more censored space.

Full disclosure: I serve on the Board of Fight for the Future, which organized American Censorship Day. 

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