Posted on December 3, 2011 by

If you can't find it, you can't read it

The internet has been one of the greatest tools for the sharing of information, the dissemination of opinions, the forming of friendships and the distribution of pirated stuff and porn *wink*ever invented. So, it’s no surprise that various governments throughout the world have tried to control or restrict it, various commercial entities have tried to avoid or control it, and various social and religious commenters and groups have decried its effect on the populace. Examples aplenty abound, from the prosecution of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on dubious sexual assault charges to the Great Fire Wall of China.

Until now, most of these efforts have been beaten back, at least in the Western World. As much as France or some European countries might like to prosecute a given YouTube user from the US for violating one of their “hate speech” laws, or they might want to try and block his content the fact that it would make the internet less useful to everyone and they would invite retaliation from websites and businesses in the United States basically prevents them from doing so, at least in more than a token way (some blocks have been put on, but they don’t affect users on the US end, and most Europeans rather easily get around them). Similarly, since the Internet brings in so much money for the US economy our government has basically taken (and proponents of internet freedom have been given this as a rhetorical shield) a “hands off” or laissez faire attitude towards the net except when it comes to the intersection of children and porn, several laws of which have had to be struck down by courts for what is called in legal parlance, “over breadth”.

However, things seem to be changing. As the US has increasingly morphed into a type of mild “police” or “security” state apparently those in power have decided that more control over the flow of information is warranted. US copyright holders, relying on the currently expansively defined copy right protections inherent in most of our law and the tons of money they have shoveled to our legislators are finally threatening to see some payoff for all their lobbying, as the pieces of legislation that have been passed to protect them such as the DCMA don’t go far enough for them. Meanwhile, certain tragedies have presented “security” and law enforcement ideologues with the justification needed to try and get their version of a more secure or morally pure internet passed. Two laws – one currently in force but in need of amendment, and one proposed – are cases in point.


SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, currently sits in the US House of Representatives. A similar bill, The Protect IP Act, currently is in the US Senate. For a good summary of what these acts would do, there are Wikipedia links at the bottom of this post. However, the main thing with both bills is that they would require search engines (and arguably websites, blogs, etc) to delink to sites that held material considered copyright, and would require internet service providers (. e.g. cable modem providers, dish providers, DSL, Fiber) to not allow links to the infringing domains. This threatens to shut off lots of free speech (because the definition of copyright in the US is very broad and a single infringing item is enough to shut down a blog or website), impede contact between people outside the US and inside the US, and will probably cost internet providers lots of money. For those readers who are not from the US, I will quickly explain that the two legislative bodies – the Senate and House of Representatives – will both have to agree on one of these bills or a combination of the two bills (most likely) in order to get a single bill to send to the President to sign or veto.


The CFFA, or Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is an already existing law from the mid 1980’s that has been amended several times over the past 20 plus years. The recent threat comes from a proposed Amendment by Senator Leahy (the same guy who authored the Protect IP act) and is because of the Lori Drew case where a teenage girl, Megan Meier committed suicide due to a fake romance enabled by a fake MySpace profile created by Drew. Drew had wanted to see if Meier, who had been a former friend of her daughters had been spreading rumors, so she, her daughter, and a babysitter created a false online persona of a boy and engaged Megan in conversation over a period of weeks or months. When the time came (for whatever reason) to “end” the fake relationship, the babysitter had the “boy” tell Megan that the world would be better off without her. Megan’s mother found her daughter hanging in a closet.
Due to the widespread outrage this generated, some states made cyber bullying a crime. For the US Department of Justice, however, that wasn’t enough. They took Lori Drew to court and charged her with violating the CFFA, specifically the “unauthorized access” part. Another thing the DOJ did was assert that Lori violated MySpace’s TOS. Such an expansive reading of the CFAA caused the Electronic Frontier Foundation and famous professor Orin Kerr to work for the defense. After the jury convicted Drew on one misdemeanor (while acquitting her of other charges) the presiding judge threw the conviction out on the terms of “vagueness”, basically declaring that the DOJ’s interpretation of the statute was too broad. It is supposedly in order to “correct” this abuse of the statutes language that currently there are two amendments to the CFAA pending in the Senate, of which Leahy’s is one. Professor Kerr gives a run down of why he opposes the Leahy amendment here Rather than correct the issue , in fact, Leahy’s amendment looks as if it would codify the power that the Justice Department wants.

To sum up:
While I think people making hay about the two bills and the Leahy amendment might defeat them, it does seem the powers that be are determined via hook and crook to gain some measure of control over the internet. Based on the past ten years, I am not betting against them.

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