The House of Representatives is considering the disturbingly-named E-PARASITE Act. The bill, which is intended to curb copyright infringment on-line, is similar to the Senate’s PROTECT IP Act, but much much worse. It’s as though George Lucas came out with the director’s cut of “The Phantom Menace,” but added in another half-hour of Jar Jar Binks.
As with PROTECT IP, the provisions allowing the Attorney General to obtain a court order to block sites that engage in criminal copyright violations are, in theory, less objectionable. But they’re quite problematic in their particulars. Let me give three examples.
First, the orders not only block access through ISPs, but also require search engines to de-list objectionable sites. That not only places a burden on Google, Bing, and other search sites, but it “vaporizes” (to use George Orwell’s term) the targeted sites until they can prove they’re licit. That has things exactly backwards: the government must prove that material is unlawful before restraining it. This aspect of the order is likely constitutionally infirm.
Second, the bill attacks circumvention as well: MAFIAAFire and its ilk become unlawful immediately. Filtering creep is inevitable: you have to target circumvention, and the scope of circumvention targeted widens with time. Proxy services like Anonymizer are likely next.
Finally, commentators have noted that the bill relies on DNS blocking, but they’re actually underestimating its impact. The legislation says ISPs must take “technically feasible and reasonable measures designed to prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States” to Web sites targeted under the bill, “including measures designed to prevent the domain name of the foreign infringing site (or portion thereof) from resolvingto that domain name’s Internet protocol address.” The definitional section of the bill says that “including” does not mean “limited to.” In other words, if an ISP can engage in technically feasible, reasonable IP address blocking or URL blocking – which is increasingly possible with providers who employ deep packet inspection – it must do so. The bill, in other words, targets more than the DNS.
On the plus side, the bill does provide notice to users (the AG must specify text to display when users try to access the site), and it allows for amended orders to deal with the whack-a-mole problem of illegal content evading restrictions by changing domain names or Web hosting providers.
The private action section of the bill is extremely problematic. Under its provisions, YouTube is clearly unlawful, and neither advertising or payment providers would be able to transact business with it. The content industry doesn’t like YouTube – see the Viacom litigation – but it’s plainly a powerful and important innovation. This part of E-PARASITE targets sites “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property.” (Side note: sorry, it’s not theft. This is a rhetorical trope in the IP wars, but IP infringement simply is not the same as theft. Theft deals with rivalrous goods. In addition, physical property rights do not expire with time. If this is theft, why aren’t copyright and patent expirations a regulatory taking? Why not just call it “property terrorism”?)
So, what defines such a site? It is:
- “primarily designed or operated for the purpose of, has only limited purpose or use other than, or is marketed by its operator or another acting in concert with that operator for use in, offering goods or services in a manner that engages in, enables, or facilitates” violations of the Copyright Act, Title I of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or anti-counterfeiting laws; or,
- “is taking, or has taken, deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of the use of the U.S.-directed site to carry out the acts that constitute a violation” of those laws; or,
- the owner “operates the U.S.-directed site with the object of promoting, or has promoted, its use to carry out acts that constitute a violation” of those laws.
That is an extraordinarily broad ambit. Would buying keywords, for example, that mention a popular brand constitute a violation? And how do we know what a site is “primarily designed for”? YouTube seems to have limited purpose or use other than facilitating copyright infringement. Heck, if the VCR were a Web site, it’d be unlawful, too.
The bill purports to establish a DMCA-like regime for such sites: the IP owner provides notice, and the site’s owner can challenge via counter-notification. But the defaults matter here, a lot: payment providers and advertisers must cease doing business with such sites unless the site owner counter-notifies, and even then, the IP owner can obtain an injunction to the same effect. Moreover, to counter-notify, a site owner must concede jurisdiction, which foreign sites will undoubtedly be reluctant to do. (Litigating in the U.S. is expensive, and the courts tend to be friendly towards local IP owners. See, for example, Judge Crotty’s slipshod opinion in the Rojadirecta case.)
I’ve argued in a new paper that using direct, open, and transparent methods to censor the Internet is preferable to our current system of “soft” censorship via domain name seizures and backdoor arm-twisting of private firms, but E-PARASITE shows that it’s entirely possible for hard censorship to be badly designed. The major problem is that it outsources censorship decisions to private companies. Prior restraint is an incredibly powerful tool, and we need the accountability that derives from having elected officials make these decisions. Private firms have one-sided incentives, as we’ve seen with DMCA take-downs.
In short, the private action measures make it remarkably easy for IP owners to cut off funding for sites to which they object. These include Torrent tracker sites, on-line video sites, sites that host mash-ups, and so forth. The procedural provisions tilt the table strongly towards IP owners, including by establishing very short time periods by which advertisers and payment providers have to comply. Money matters: WikiLeaks is going under because of exactly these sort of tactics.
America is getting into the Internet censorship business. We started down this path to deal with pornographic and obscene content; our focus has shifted to intellectual property. I’ve argued that this is because IP legislation draws lower First Amendment scrutiny than other speech restrictions, and interest groups are taking advantage of that loophole. It’s strange to me that Congress would damage innovation on the Internet – only the most powerful communications medium since words on paper – to protect movies and music, which are relatively small-scale in the U.S. economy. But, as always with IP, the political economy matters.
I predict that a bill like PROTECT IP or E-PARASITE will become law. Then, we’ll fight out again what the First Amendment means on the Internet, and then the myth of America’s free speech exceptionalism on-line will likely be dead.
Cross-posted at Prawfsblawg.
Filed under: civil procedure, Copyright, Court Decisions, Digital Media, Filtering, First Amendment, Google, Intermediaries, Internet & Society, ISP, Media, Music, Politics, RIAA, Scholarship, Search Engines, Social Networking, Software, Video