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  Search All NYTimes.com   OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR Stop the Great Firewall of America By REBECCA MacKINNONPublished: November 15, 2011 China operates the worldÕs most elaborate andopaque system of Internet censorship. ButCongress, under pressure to take action againstthe theft of intellectual property, is consideringmisguided legislation that would strengthenChinaÕs Great Firewall and even bring majorfeatures of it to America.The legislation Ñ the Protect IP Act, which has been introduced in the Senate, and a House version known as the Stop Online Piracy Act Ñ have an impressivearray of well-financed backers, including the United States Chamberof Commerce, the Motion Picture Association of America, the American Federation of Musicians, the Directors Guild of America, theInternational Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Screen Actors Guild.The bills aim not to censor political or religious speech as China does, but to protect American intellectual property. Alarm at theinfringement of creative works through the Internet is justifiable. Thesolutions offered by the legislation, however, threaten to inflictcollateral damage on democratic discourse and dissent both at homeand around the world.The bills would empower the attorney general to create a blacklist of sites to be blocked by Internet service providers, search engines,payment providers and advertising networks, all without a courthearing or a trial. The House version goes further, allowing privatecompanies to sue service providers for even briefly and unknowingly hosting content that infringes on copyright Ñ a sharp change fromcurrent law, which protects the service providers from civil liability if they remove the problematic content immediately upon notification.The intention is not the same as ChinaÕs Great Firewall, a nationwidesystem of Web censorship, but the practical effect could be similar. Abuses under existing American law serve as troubling predictors forthe kinds of abuse by private actors that the House bill would makepossible. Take, for example, the cease-and-desist letters that Diebold,a maker of voting machines, sent in 2003, demanding that Internetservice providers shut down Web sites that had published internalcompany e-mails about problems with the companyÕs votingmachines. The letter cited copyright violations, and most of the serviceproviders took down the content without question, despite the strongcase to be made that the material was speech protected under the First Amendment.The House bill would also emulate ChinaÕs system of corporate Òself-discipline,Ó making companies liable for usersÕ actions. The burden WhatÕs This? MOST E-MAILEDRECOMMENDED FOR YOU 186 articles in thepast month FRField3  All Recommendations Latest in My Network Diane Cameron  RECOMMENDED Police Move Against Occupy Wall Street Protesters in Zuccotti Park David AndrŽ Broniatowski  RECOMMENDED Where the 1 Percent Fit in the Hierarchy of Income Siva Vaidhyanathan  RECOMMENDED Vouchers for Veterans, and Other Bad Ideas POPULAR NOW Congress Blocks New Rules on School Lunches 1. THE ATHLETE'S PAIN Hip Procedure Grows Popular Despite Doubt2. Austrian Returns, Unrepentant, to Online Jihad Subscribe: Digital / Home Delivery Welcome, furdx   Log Out   Help HOME PAGETODAY'S PAPERVIDEOMOST POPULARTIMES TOPICS  WORLDU.S.N.Y. / REGIONBUSINESSTECHNOLOGYSCIENCEHEALTHSPORTSOPINIONARTSSTYLETRAVEL JOBSREAL ESTATEAUTOS RECOMMENDTWITTERLINKEDINE-MAILPRINTREPRINTSSHARE   would be on the Web site operator to prove that the site was not beingused for copyright infringement. The effect on user-generated siteslike YouTube would be chilling. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have played an important role inpolitical movements from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park. At present,social networking services are protected by a Òsafe harborÓ provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which grants Web sitesimmunity from prosecution as long as they act in good faith to takedown infringing content as soon as rights-holders point it out to them.The House bill would destroy that immunity, putting the onus on YouTube to vet videos in advance or risk legal action. It would putTwitter in a similar position to that of its Chinese cousin, Weibo, which reportedly employs around 1,000 people to monitor and censoruser content and keep the company in good standing with authorities.Compliance with the Stop Online Piracy Act would require hugeoverhead spending by Internet companies for staff and technologiesdedicated to monitoring users and censoring any infringing materialfrom being posted or transmitted. This in turn would create dauntingfinancial burdens and legal risks for start-up companies, making itmuch harder for brilliant young entrepreneurs with limited resourcesto create small and innovative Internet companies that empowercitizens and change the world. Adding to the threat to free speech, recent academic research on globalInternet censorship has found that in countries where heavy legalliability is imposed on companies, employees tasked with day-to-day censorship jobs have a strong incentive to play it safe and over-censorÑ even in the case of content whose legality might stand a good chanceof holding up in a court of law. Why invite legal hassle when you can just hit ÒdeleteÓ?The potential for abuse of power through digital networks Ñ upon which we as citizens now depend for nearly everything, including ourpolitics Ñ is one of the most insidious threats to democracy in theInternet age. We live in a time of tremendous political polarization.Public trust in both government and corporations is low, anddeservedly so. This is no time for politicians and industry lobbyists in Washington to be devising new Internet censorship mechanisms,adding new opportunities for abuse of corporate and governmentpower over online speech. While American intellectual property deserves protection, that protection must be won and defended in amanner that does not stifle innovation, erode due process under thelaw, and weaken the protection of political and civil rights on theInternet.  Rebecca MacKinnon, a senior fellow at the New America Foundationand a founder of Global Voices Online, is the author of the forthcoming ÒConsent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.Ó  Go to Your Recommendations È WhatÕs This? | DonÕt Show PRESENTED BY 3. PERSONAL BEST For Beginning Runners, Advice Can Be a Hurdle4. VITAL SIGNS Screening: Doctors Paid for Heart Tests Order More5. 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TELEVISION È Female ComediansBreaking Taste Taboos HEALTHÈ The Right Reasons toStretch Before Exercise WORLD È  Village in Iraq Falters WithExit of U.S. Troops OPINION È Fixes: For Weight Loss,Teamwork andTrust If you want to adoptand maintain betterhabits, itÕs better not togo it alone. DINING & WINE È Restaurant Review: Sushi Yasuda OPINION È Op-Ed: Stopthe GreatFirewall Legislation meant toprotect intellectualproperty could damagedemocratic discourseand dissent. Home   World U.S. N.Y. / Region Business Technology Science Health Sports Opinion  Arts Style Travel Jobs Real Estate  Autos Site Map © 2011 The New York Times Company   Privacy   Your Ad Choices   Terms of Service   Terms of Sale   Corrections     RSS   Help   Contact Us   Work for Us    Advertise   INSIDE NYTIMES.COM   MORE IN OPINION (6 OF 25 ARTICLES) Op-Ed Contributor: Why CListen Read More È
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