When prominent conservative bloggers and left-leaning organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the ACLU speak with a single voice in condemning a piece of legislation, you know something major is afoot.
The something in this case is the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA), a bill that was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The bill, which is ostensibly focused on digital piracy, would give the Attorney General carte blanche to kill any website where copyright infringement was deemed “central to the activity” of the site—a vague and muddily worded caveat that could lead to government-imposed censorship.
The bill, whose chief sponsor is Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT), represents the latest attempt by the recording and filmmaking industries to put an end to peer-to-peer (p2p) file sharing, a practice they claim has cost them billions of dollars. Previous efforts at curbing the practice, which included lawsuits against websites and threats of litigation against the end users, often teenagers, enjoyed limited success. Each time a file-sharing network such as Napster was shut down through legal intimidation, ten new ones would spring up in its place.
Having tried and failed to succeed using legal remedies, content providers now want the federal government to serve as their private security police through COICA.
In principle, the goals of the bill are laudable. Digital piracy deprives creators of digital content of rightful compensation and should be outlawed. Yet, giving the federal government the power to shut down websites at will based upon a vague and arbitrary standard of evidence, is setting a dangerous precedent.
One of the most invidious features of COICA as written is that websites that provide only links to illegal content alone—which in itself is not a criminal act—could still face wrath of the federal executioner. In essence, the law would allow the federal government to censor the web without due process.
COICA must still be approved by the full House and Senate before becoming law. A vote in the lame duck session of Congress is not likely.
Footnote: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Partick Leahy, the bill’s chief architect, has in the course of his political career received $885,216 from the TV, movie and music industries. That’s probably just a coincidence, though.
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