Suppression and Expression: Government and the Individual
This article is a part of a series of blog posts that served as an assignment for the course titled Social Implications of Computing (CIS*3000) during my undergraduate studies at the University of Guelph. It was originally published on a free Wordpress.com site I had created for the course.
Throughout the course of the history of mankind, we can not help but make a few distinct observations on human interaction. The most interesting thing I’ve been noticing is the uniquely unstable (and confusing) relationship between the Constitution, the Government, and the Individual. It’s sort of like a love triangle; both the Government and the Individual love the rights and freedoms listed out by the Constitution, both the Government and the Individual hate each other (on a comical note of course), and both the Government and the Individual are loved equally by the Constitution. As for me, sometimes I find myself on the side of the Government, and other times I’m all for Individual rights. What is certain is that the Government and the Individual have had very intriguing clashes in the past and in fact, still do. Hence, by studying the two sides from different viewpoints, one can hopefully understand both entities a little better.
A Brief History
Up until the 20th century, new breakthroughs in technology have always led to issues between the Government and the Individual. The invention and application of the Printing Press truly sheds light on the relationship between the two. This invention created a new form of media which enabled a collaboration of writers/artists, validated under certain conditions, to publish different sorts of information for public access through different media, for example newspapers, books, magazines, textbooks, and the list goes on and on. It was revolutionary. However the conditions under which these collaborations were made valid by the Government sparked controversy ranging from the inaccuracy of biased information to the violation of the Right to Freedom of Speech.
Art XOR Propaganda
The biggest problem between the two entities has always been their perceptions of Freedom of Speech. Long before even the invention of the Printing Press, the ‘Government’ has striven for peace and integrity in society by restricting access to certain information for the moral and political health of its members. This was carried on throughout the ages through regulating all written forms of expression, or what certain Individuals would call, Art. One of the many perceptions of speech and expression is that it is a form of art. But some of what Individuals would call Art and Expression the Government would call Propaganda. The above views are clearly different from each other and have no synergy whatsoever. And if this has been continuing with all other types of media and communication, then the Internet has no excuse not be a controversial medium.
Internet: New Medium. Same Old Story
With the emergence of the Internet and its proliferation, more issues could have been expected without any doubts. Similar to the Printing Press, the Internet created space for the free expression of thoughts and ideas as well- only in theory. The Government has constantly been passing Bills and Acts in order to control the exposure of different kinds of information, ranging from the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) to counter pornography, to the various copyright restrictions that are still in effect today. Have the people been pleased with the Government`s doings? Yes and no. For example, certain people are against the illegitimate distribution of music, as demonstrated by a hunger strike protest organized by Lagos artists in Nigeria in 2009. However, certain people find punishing the online distribution of material (illegal or not) to be violating their freedom of expression as well.
Thus, the Government and the Individual continue to remain unsatisfied with each other. To elaborate even further on this, last month (September 2010), a new Bill that will inevitably shake the U.S. was proposed.
In a Fox News article (which I encourage you to read fully before continuing with this blog entry, and also to use as a reference when reading this entry) published on Septembeter 29 2010, the writer (Judson Berger) brings forward the negative reactions of ‘Internet Entrepreneurs’ in light of the proposition of the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA). It was presented in the Senate Judiciary Committee of the United States of America on September 20 2010. Basically, this bill provides the Attorney General (currently Eric Holder) the power to literally shut down websites that seem to be ‘dedicated to infringement activities’. If you casually brushed off ‘literally shut down’, let me re-emphasize – even if the website simply contains material that would be deemed to be copyright infringing, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the whole domain name would be shut down. It shouldn’t take more than a few seconds to figure out that this brings up a whole bunch of issues, especially with freedom of speech. The Government has definitely crossed the line. Right? Well, let’s not jump to conclusions, but rather let’s re-evaluate.
Firstly, let us consider the Government’s goals. Online Piracy has been a major issue since the advent of the Internet and the Government has been battling it ever since, especially in the U.S. According to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, “No one would dispute that online infringement and counterfeiting of American intellectual property drains the American economy and costs American jobs.” From this we can see that the U.S. Government seems to actually care about the U.S. economy, and this is definitely well-expected. In fact, this Bill would perform its intended job impressively well against its intended targets – Internet Pirates. Websites dedicated to the illegitimate distribution of material like torrent-providing forums (assuming the sites are truly aware and supportive of their piracy) would be hit really hard by this Bill. For a good example of what could be done, remember TVShack.net, the sketchily ‘free’ online media streaming site? This is what it looks like right now:
Site Seized Don’t think this is true? Click on the image, or go to http://www.tvshack.net
Note: at the time of writing, the website of TVShack.net was still up albeit under lockdown. The "site seized" quote above is what was visible in the original article location at the time of migration (circa Jan 2019).
This part alone can be advocated whole-heartedly, as the elimination of Piracy in order to benefit the economy is a very sensible goal; Pirates have always been a threat to economies, even from the swashbuckling days.
So, it has been inferred that the Government plans to protect the economy by combating Piracy through effective means. However, you would immediately point out the extremity of the Government’s plan of action. This brings up the question, how effective is the COICA truly? In other words, what harm can be done by this Bill, with regards to its main motive? First of all, services like RapidShare, MediaShare, and DropBox are high potential targets due to the nature of their services. As much as that is obvious, you must also realize that it is nearly impossible to be perfectly rid of illegitimate material. They can do their best to moderate user-uploaded files, yet even though they are technically aware of the almost perfect chance of an illegitimate distribution to be on their servers at any given second, it takes anywhere between minutes to days (sometimes months) to pinpoint the activities specifically. But due to the statements of the Bill, such websites would be at the top of the ‘public blacklist’, which would inevitable cause chaos due to the loss access to the millions of user-uploaded data.
Directly linked to the above issue is the problem of innocents becoming victims to judiciary action as a result of this bill. RapidShare is actually aware of the presence of illegitimate distribution in its servers; it has been taking action since a very long time even prior to the passing of this bill. But common users of the internet like bloggers, vloggers, photographers, journalists, etc. are a whole other story. A lot of times people will unknowingly upload data onto their websites that infringe copyright laws. Often, these materials are only used to justify a certain point a user was trying to make (for example, embedding a YouTube video in an article) or even simply give out a unique artistic appeal (like background images for personal MySpace pages). But if this Bill became law, it would easily victimize these innocent (sometimes ignorant) users in a very unfair fashion.
Now, co-authors and supporters of the COICA cleverly point out that the bill is dedicated to the ‘worst-of-the-worst’ and that the Justice Department ‘could not shut down a site without first winning approval from a federal court’ and that the bill ‘protects website operators by giving them the opportunity to remove pirating activity to get their site back online’ (I am assuming that the bill refers to this opportunity as a warning/notice followed by a time-period within which the piracy must be eliminated). But what the Justice Department defines as the ‘worst-of-the-worst’ would be no doubt too broad (Does the Communications Decency Act of 1996 ring any bells?).
However, there happens to be a far worse issue with regards to this Bill. This issue has always existed whenever there were plans for censorship. The Right to Freedom of Speech is held dear to heart by all Individuals. After all, it is a freedom that is rightfully guaranteed by the Constitution. But the COICA jeopardizes this Fundamental Right of every American citizen. If complete websites are going to be shut down due to claims of ‘Copyright Infringement’, if a person can not speak his/her mind without worrying about unintentionally ‘stealing’ intellectual property, then there would be a clear breach of the First Ammendment.
An interesting side note is that the Bill gives the Justice Department the power to shut down websites even of non-American origin, in order to protect the American economy. This effectively suppresses the freedom of speech of not just Americans, but potentially people all over the world. Very interesting. (What are the American Government’s true intentions? Maybe Global Dominance? Very interesting.)
From this analysis of the COICA with respect to two of its stakeholders, the Government and the common folk, my conclusion is that the cons of the passing of this Bill outweigh the benefits quite a bit. Yes, the protection of the American Economy is a just cause, in fact it is one of the most important parts of American life. However, it is truly the people of America that make the country what it is, and if these people are not allowed to freely express (of course to a certain extent) their thoughts and ideals through a proliferating medium such as the Internet, then there won’t be an American Economy anyway. On another interesting side note, related to the aforementioned, most of the things related to the American Economy are online – e-banking, online stock exchange, eBay, etc. This Bill would jeopardize certain online businesses, directly negatively affecting the Economy. As Peter Eckersley, Senior Staff Technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said, “It’s one thing to take down an infringing file. It’s another to bully an entire ecosystem of people who are trying to innovate, and that’s what this bill is trying to do.” “The senators who are well-intentioned haven’t realized how much of the astonishing economic value of the Internet they’re putting at risk here.” So maybe the Government did cross the line.
In conclusion, by this analysis I hope you were able to understand both the Government and the Individual with respect to the sensitive area of censorship from different viewpoints. The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act provides long-awaited solutions, but unfortunately also poses the same old problems of suppression of Freedom of Speech. On a final side note, in my opinion the true solution to combating Online Piracy can only come from change from within Pirates themselves. No matter what the Government can attempt to do, Pirates will always find loopholes and cards to pull out, just like the ‘Freedom of Expression’ card. Then again, this goes with most crime in general.
For a few more interesting reads, do take a look at how certain people feel about the COICA and what more does the EFF have to say about this Bill.
If you would also like to keep track of the status of this Bill, you can do so here.