Will Congress Pass the Internet Version of the Intolerable Acts?

The intersection of government and technology.
Dec. 8 2011 7:19 AM

The Internet’s Intolerable Acts

You should be very afraid of a pair of bills that threaten Internet freedom.

Hilary Clinton
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Photograph by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

The United States of America was forged in resistance to collective reprisals—the punishment of many for the acts of few. In 1774, following the Boston Tea Party, the British Parliament passed a series of laws—including the mandated closure of the port of Boston—meant to penalize the people of Massachusetts. These abuses of power, labeled the “Intolerable Acts,” catalyzed the American Revolution by making plain the oppression of the British crown.

More than 200 years later, the U.S. Congress is considering bills that would lead to collective reprisals against online communities.* The Senate’s PROTECT IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House are supposed to address copyright infringement and counterfeiting. In reality, they are so technically impractical that they do little to address these problems. They would, however, undermine participatory democracy and human rights, which is why these bills have garnered near-universal condemnation from both human rights groups and technologists.

The interconnected nature of the Internet fostered the growth of online communities such as Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook. These sites host our humdrum daily interactions and serve as a public soapbox for our political voice. Both the PROTECT IP Act and SOPA would create a national firewall by censoring the domain names of websites accused of hosting infringing copyrighted materials. This legislation would enable law enforcement to take down the entire tumblr.com domain due to something posted on a single blog. Yes, an entire, largely innocent online community could be punished for the actions of a tiny minority.

If you think this scenario is unlikely, consider what happened to Mooo.com earlier this year. Back in February, the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security seized 10 domains during a child-porn crackdown called “Operation Protect Our Children.” Along with this group of offenders, 84,000 more entirely innocent sites were tagged with the following accusatory splash page: “Advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and possession of child pornography constitute federal crimes that carry penalties for first time offenders of up to 30 years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution." Their only crime was guilt by association: They were all using the Mooo.com domain.

SOPA would go even further, creating a system of private regulation to shut down websites that are accused of not doing enough to prevent infringement. Keep in mind that these shutdowns would happen before a site owner could defend himself in court—SOPA could punish sites without even establishing whether they are guilty of the charges brought against them.

In January 2010, Hillary Clinton launched the State Department’s Internet Freedom initiative, stumping for open access to information worldwide. Though Secretary Clinton has said that “there is no contradiction between intellectual property rights protection and enforcement of expression on the Internet,” PROTECT IP and SOPA create mutually exclusive trajectories for these two priorities. These bills are driven by technologically naive thinking that it’s possible to censor information without affecting freedom of speech. SOPA even goes so far as to make the key circumvention tools used by human rights advocates and democracy organizers throughout the Middle East illegal. While we’re certain that SOPA’s authors did not mean to craft a bill tailor-made to support the future Qaddafis and Mubaraks of the world, that is precisely what they’ve done.

Rather than blocking online copyright infringement, legislation like SOPA and Protect IP would instigate a data obfuscation arms race, making legitimate law enforcement efforts all the more difficult. If the United States decides that copyright infringement must be stopped at any cost, the required censorship regime will depend on ever more invasive practices, such as monitoring users’ personal Web traffic. This counterproductive cat-and-mouse game of censorship and circumvention would drive savvy scofflaws to darknets while increasing surveillance of less technically proficient Internet users.

Given that the Intolerable Acts sparked a revolution, it should be no surprise that this proposed legislation has generated a massive outcry in the United States. However, this attempt to unilaterally censor the Internet has spurred worldwide opposition, with several dozen international organizations signing a letter stating that “[t]hrough SOPA, the United States is attempting to dominate a shared global resource.” Last month, the European Parliament adopted a resolution underscoring “the need to protect the integrity of the global internet and freedom of communication by refraining from unilateral measures to revoke IP addresses or domain names.”

As participants in the Internet community, we must defend against collective reprisals that undermine our rights to access, privacy, and freedom of expression online. SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act are fundamentally incompatible with a free society and with the founding principles of the United States. This truth should be self-evident: Human rights should never be subjugated to copyright.

Correction, Dec 9, 2011: This article originally stated that it has been more than 300 years since the passage of the “Intolerable Acts.” It has been more than 200 years. (Return to corrected sentence.)

James Losey is a policy analyst with the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative. He writes about user freedoms and the digital divide have been published in Advances in Computing, Ars Technica, CommLaw Conspectus, IEEE Internet Computing, IEEE Spectrum, and Slate.