The Widening Gyre

The United Kingdom, whose major ISPs already filter child abuse images using the Cleanfeed system, is moving to expand its on-line censorship. The government is collaborating with ISPs to implement “voluntary” blocking of Web sites that are primarily intended to help users infringe copyright, and the Home Office is discussing plans for filtering of “violent and unlawful” material. Internet censorship follows the second law of thermodynamics: like entropy, it always increases. British Telecom began using Cleanfeed due to surplus capacity in its system, and the government under Tony Blair threatened other ISPs into adopting the system on pain of facing even more restrictive legislation. When there is a system in place to prevent users from reaching bad content, calls to employ it more widely always increase. There’s a limited lobby for unlawful violence and blatant copyright infringement, so the debate tends to be one-sided.

This is relevant to the U.S., which is exploring two avenues of Internet censorship. One uses ex parte seizures of allegedly infringing domain names, such as domains that offer on-line poker (gambling is very bad, unless you’re in Las Vegas, or at Foxwoods) or those that enable users to watch copyrighted sports broadcasts. (Blame soccer!) The second would expand this approach to allow the U.S. Attorney General or IP rightsholders to obtain an injunction that would require ISPs to block access to the offending domain name.

Every country has things which it feels are obvious to censor. In France: hate speech. South Korea: sites praising North Korea. In the U.S.: copyright infringement and gambling. But if filtering is adopted to solve one purported information problem, it becomes yet more appealing as a tool for others. If the U.S. puts filtering in place for copyright infringement, it won’t be long before there is pressure to use it against sites that offer travel to Cuba, or extol terrorist groups, or leak U.S. government secrets. This is a very real slippery slope problem, and it’s why it is so fortunate that Mark Lemley and Durie Tangri are challenging the seizure of Rojadirecta, and that Ron Wyden has put a hold on the PROTECT IP Act. We need to get the balances and safeguards right, because today’s minor tweak to the Domain Name System is tomorrow’s preferred tool to on-line information problems.

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