How to kill the 'Net

Gibbs mashes up Prince and legislation and sees the death of the Internet

Back in July, Prince, who was formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince (he can flip-flop with the best of 'em), announced that "The Internet is completely over" and continued, "All these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers and that can't be good for you."

Naturally the mainstream press lapped up this nonsense with the likes of MSNBC convening a panel discussion to delve into the elfin musician's prognostications. Having a serious discussion about Prince dissing the Internet is as meaningful as pondering Lindsay Lohan's opinions on string theory, but I digress …

Prince then went and took down his "official" Web site (for those of you who might enjoy a walk down memory lane with Prince, the Wayback Machine still has snapshots of the site).

I, for one, feel the loss of this site deeply and the world is a colder, lonelier place for its loss. Indeed, my life may never be the same again and, sadly, generations will grow up in an online world bereft of instant access to his "Princeness".

Then again, and far more profoundly, those same generations may grow up with many other sites not available because of a new bill working its sorry way through the Senate's Judiciary Committee.

This bill, the "Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act" (COICA), is essentially a way to give the government the ability to shut down or, more accurately, censor, any Web site in the world if it is found to be "dedicated to infringing activities" – a wonderfully vague way of framing the criteria for action.

"Huh?" you may have exclaimed. "How could the U.S. enforce taking down sites world-wide?" The answer, my friends, is by requiring U.S. ISPs and registrars running name servers to not resolve the domain names of the alleged infringing sites.

These domain names would be on a blacklist that would be managed by the Department of Justice and would potentially allow the Attorney General to censor any Web site, even though no court had found any evidence of copyright infringement or the breaking of any other law.

With this bill in place, we could also then expect the U.S. to pressure other governments such as the British, the Canadians, the French, and so on to collaborate. The bill would be a thermonuclear option in international trade politics.

And it is also obvious what the consequences of this bill would be: It would short-circuit any claims that the US might have on supporting free speech.  It would allow those with political clout and big bucks to exercise overwhelming and over-reaching power to defend whatever they consider to be their commercial interests.  And, most crucially, it would become a mechanism to implement censorship. Just consider how damaging and over-reaching the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has been.

So where did this really, really bad idea spring from? COICA is a bipartisan insanity sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and while its cross-party support may seem odd, the answer to why representatives of, to quote Lewis Black, "the party of bad ideas and the party of no ideas" should collaborate is obvious: Money. How do we know this? Just consider which organizations are pushing hard to get this bill passed: The Recording Industry Association of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Leahy's Web site includes a press release that argues: "This much needed bill will help law enforcement keep pace in shutting down Web sites that illegally sell copyrighted goods. That way we protect legitimate businesses from losing sales and consumers from being duped into purchasing counterfeit and unauthorized goods. By cracking down on online piracy of television shows and movies, we hope this bill will encourage copyright owners to develop innovative and competitive new choices for consumers to watch video over the Internet."

Leahy and Hatch originally tried to fast track this bill back in September, but cooler heads pointed out that it clearly violated due process and prohibitions against prior restraint ("prior restraint" being a U.S. legal term" referring to government actions that prevent communications from reaching the public)"). This was merely a delay, and now with the mid-term elections you can expect this bill to resurface.

And if this cabal of pols and vested interests get their way and COICA passes, there's going to be a whole lot more Web sites missing from the Internet than just the one belonging to Prince. Worse still, his ostensibly ridiculous statement that the "Internet is completely over" will be more or less true.

Get ready to defend the 'Net from this craziness. If you don't get involved, you can kiss goodbye to free speech online.

Gibbs can still be heard in Ventura, Calif. … for now. Infringe on his e-mail at backspin@gibbs.com.

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