Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Senate Panel Approves Website Shut-Down Bill (COICA)...

There is a new bill just passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee called the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA). The main purpose of this bill is to "allow the government to seek court orders to shut down websites offering materials believed to infringe copyright".

Some details...

S. 3804, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) proposes to target websites that distribute infringing materials by having the Attorney General shut down their domain names (if their registrars or registries are US-based), or by telling US-based ISPs and other online providers not to connect users to accused websites that have foreign-based domain names.

The intent of this bill sounds reasonable enough. Copyright infringement is an obvious problem in cyberspace and the music and movie industries have been trying for years to clamp down on piracy.

However, upon closer examination, there are a number of serious problems with the way COICA tries to tackle online piracy. The advocacy group, Public Knowledge, outlines these points well...

First, blocking access to allegedly infringing sites and effectively requiring service providers to deny their customers true, accurate information about site locations, effectively authorizes prior restraints on speech, the most disfavored form of speech regulation under our Constitution.

Second, COICA defines a number of key terms broadly enough to potentially reach many legitimate and beneficial services. This leads inevitably to a situation where very valid and legal websites are inadvertently shut down for no reason whatsoever.

Third, by specifically making it possible to shut down websites "that link to infringing sites", COICA is opening a major can of worms. Technically, Google, Yahoo, and all of the major search engines link to infringing sites - not to mention newspapers, blogs, Facebook posts, etc. that provide commentary, - meaning that an unbelievable amount of mindless litigation would be a secondary consequence.

Fourth, COICA would lead to major technical problems for the Internet as a whole. It would create conflicts between DNS servers by requiring the operators of certain domain name servers to blacklist certain DNS requests, making the entire system unstable. If you want to totally geek out: "These conflicts could simply drive adoption of third-party DNS servers, shifting users away from large existing providers and to various services whose business practices may be less consumer-friendly, incorporating methods like unscrupulous redirects or typosquatting. Conflicts among different DNS providers could also fuel adoption of client-side systems, increasing traffic to and burden on root nameservers."

Bottom line, from the perspective of having an Internet that functions reliably, it would not be good.

Thus far, COICA has only been approved of by one Senate committee; it still has a very long way to go before the entire Senate and House would vote to pass it, let alone, then, obtain a Presidential signature. In truth, it has virtually no chance of passing into law anytime soon. Nevertheless, the fact that this Senate panel voted 19-0 in favor of the bill is simultaneously 1) quite frightening, and 2) little more than a symbolic gesture to the lobbying influence of the music and movie industries.


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