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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

March 30, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Opinion

Federal block on free speech

The U.S. government sent techies into a frenzy when it introduced a new law that limits freedom of speech online.

The Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011 is the latest move by the government to battle online piracy. The legislation focuses on websites, specifically those outside of the United States, which illegally infringe on copyright.

Under the act, courts could issue orders that require search engines, Internet service providers and other domestic services to make foreign content inaccessible within the U.S. Unlike the current legal process, which carries no weight outside the country, the bill would wipe anything that could infringe on copyright from the Internet to solve the issue of global online piracy.

Google chairman Eric Schmidt has called PROTECT-IP a simple solution to a complex problem — and he’s right. It’s a policy that blocks websites that allow for fast action, but damage free speech. The nation needs a well-thought-out solution to this complex problem — one that relies on creativity, not censorship masked as protection.

The new bill is also a nightmare for the tech industry. It has created a blacklist of websites the U.S. will no longer allow citizens to access. Websites like Wikileaks could be erased from the Internet if plaintiffs can prove to a court that their published content is copyrighted.

PROTECT-IP isn’t the first bill to target copyright infringers. But it makes removing content easier than last year’s failed precursor, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeiting Act. Unlike COICA, which required the government to file complaints against copyright infringers, PROTECT-IP allows private entities, like website shareholders, to bring cases to court. By opening up the legal process to the public, the bill could cause a chain of government-sanctioned website takedowns and justify the removal without examining the claims.

PROTECT-IP is built to remove content first and ask questions later. If passed, the bill would be left to the courts’ interpretation, and therefore enable them to abuse judicial power. The danger is that perfectly legal websites could be removed until cleared for copyright, which would weaken their free speech, if not remove it entirely.

The bill will also force ISPs and search engines like Google to submit to the government’s requests by removing websites and reactivating them on command. Companies are speaking out against the bill because it would require them to devote resources and employees to monitoring sites all day. But these companies shouldn’t have to play the government’s games.

TJ Gunther is a senior journalism major. Email him at tgunthei1@ithaca.edu