I’ve been writing for several years now about the creeping attempts by nominally democratic governments to control or even close the Internet (see here for example). This week the biggest such step for some time occurs as the world’s most powerful democracy, the USA, begins a new process of introducing such controls. There are two bills before the House of Representatives (the Stop Online Piracy Bill, SOPA) and the Senate (the Protect IP act), which essentially do the same thing (although the House bill goes further): assert a wide-ranging heavy-handed jurisdiction on the Internet even beyond US borders.
Of course, the US bills do not do this as China does, in the name of political and social order, but in the name of commerce. The bills are supposedly about protecting American intellectual property, however their effect is likely to be severely chilling to free expression and the dissemination of ideas and to innovation, social and economic. The bills, amongst many other provisions, will allow corporation to sue website owners and ISPs for even unknowingly hosting or communicating copyrighted materials illicitly.
As Michael Geist has shown, SOPA in particular also asserts US jurisdiction over vast swathes of the Internet on the grounds that any site whose name is registered with a US registrar is considered a ‘US site’ regardless of the location of its server and given that name-registration of top-level (.com, .org, .net etc) names is entirely controlled from within the USA, the provisions mean that every top-level domain is considered to be ‘US’. Further it claims that IP addresses (the numerical address of site) within the whole North American region (ARIN) which includes Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, are also ‘domestic’ for the purposes of this law. Basically, the USA is asserting a kind of Munro-doctrine for the Internet.
I wrote, half-jokingly, some time ago that the US state invented the Internet, but they don’t like how it’s being used and now they want it back: this is the demand in writing. The big problem in opposing this is of course the fact that US citizens have already been thoroughly bombarded with propaganda that has told them that they are ‘under threat’ from pirates and hackers and even cyberwar – and that openness makes them insecure. They’ve been told that the Wikileaks model of accountability through openness and transparency is an attack on the USA. In an age of economic insecurity, no doubt the protection of American jobs will also be wheeled out as an excuse.
But this is quite simply another manifestation of immoral corporate greed. Intellectual Property is in itself a kind of information-age enclosure, a concept that, while it may have some use in limited forms, has become so far-reaching that it is ludicrous, and through which financial and legal strength can simply steamroller traditional or alternative visions of fairness, sharing and openness – even though these things have been shown to be vital in real innovation. If this is an infowar, I know which side I am on, and which side you should be on, and it is not the side of Protect IP and SOPA and the negative politics of closure, it is with Anonymous and the Pirate Party, with open flows, open source and open access. We have to tell them that they can’t have the Internet back, it’s ours now. We have to occupy the Internet, to build around these attempts to stifle innovation and sharing and we have to do it now.
In the meantime, you can express your displeasure here: http://americancensorship.org/
See also: The Internet Must Be Defended! Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.