The Rise of Web Censorship

The Rise of Web Censorship

Summary: Last week saw the closing down of numerous Web sites by the U.S. Government and that may have only been the tip of the ice-berg.

SHARE:
TOPICS: Browser
43

Back in 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart of famously wrote on what was, and wasn't "hard-core pornography" that, "I know it when I see it." Today, free speech on the Web is impeded by far more restrictions than just what is, or isn't, pornographic. On the Web in 2010, even the appearance of enabling file-sharing of copyright materials seems to be enough for the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to shut down Web-sites without notice .

ICE has shut down dozens of file-sharing and what are alleged to be counterfeit good sites such as Torrent-Finder.com, 2009jerseys.com, and Dvdcollects.com. Their domain names have been taken over by ICE leaving behind only a single page stating that "This domain name has been seized by ICE--Homeland Security Investigations, pursuant to a seizure warrant issued by a United States District Court."

In a statement to the New York Times, Cori W. Bassett, a spokesperson for ICE said that the "ICE office of Homeland Security Investigations [had] executed court-ordered seizure warrants against a number of domain names."

Fine and dandy. I have no use for sites that traffic in counterfeit goods such as fake autographed sports jerseys or designer purses. I do, on the other hand, worry when a site like Torrent-Finder is shut down.

You see, Torrent-Finder, which is back up under a new domain name, Torrent-Finder.info doesn't host Torrent file or even BitTorrent file trackers. It's just a search engine dedicated to file torrents such as movies, TV shows, or software programs. You can find the same file torrents with Google if you know what you're doing. Torrent-Finder, and sites like it, just makes specific kinds of file searches easier.

I think it's fine for the government to try to block the sales of fake LeBron James Miami Heat jerseys and the like. It's when we start moving into the murkier land of intellectual property and the "right" to block searches, that I start getting worried.

I have reasons. On November 26th, a Swedish court upheld the copyright convictions of three of the four founders of The Pirate Bay, the world's most famous file-sharing Web site.

Days earlier, thanks to the lobbying of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a U.S. Senate committee approved, by a unanimous vote, the COICA (Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act) bill. COICA would make not only the people hosting file sharing search sites but ISPs and the Internet bodies responsible for the Domain Name System (DNS) responsible for possible copyright violations.

As a group of law professors wrote for the public interest group Public Knowledge wrote, "The Act, if enacted into law, would fundamentally alter U.S. policy towards Internet speech (PDF Link), and would set a dangerous precedent with potentially serious consequences for free expression and global Internet freedom. " Furthermore, the law would let sites be shut down without a chance to protect themselves. "In place of a final determination after an adversary proceeding that the website in question contain infringing material, the Act permits the issuance of speech- suppressing injunctions without any meaningful opportunity for any party to contest the Attorney General's allegations of unlawful content."

It's not just the U.S. In the U.K., the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) is seeking the right to order Nominet, the Internet registry for the .uk block of domain addresses, to shut down United Kingdom registered domain names upon police demand. Just as with COICA, the SOCA could get the right to shut down Web sites first and then only afterwards have a court decide if the decision was justified.

I have no problem with law-enforcement agencies having the power to stop crimes. What I do have a problem with is them being given carte blanche to decide on their own, whenever they want, anywhere in the world, when a Web site should be shut down. That is a power that should never belong to the police alone of any country.

Topic: Browser

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

43 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: The Rise of Web Censorship

    Great article. What few people know is that Justice Stewart later recanted his blanket "I know it when I see it" definition-marker for adult material in Miller v. California, as he realized it was untenable. It is this fact which concurs with your closing statement.
    Violet Blue
  • RE: The Rise of Web Censorship

    if you download a movie or an album you are considered worse than the illiterate a**hole that mugs you on the street on your way from work. Thank you "Justice" department or whatever you pretend to be
    d.marcu
  • And what if they seized Wikileaks?

    Spying on the UN, pulling the credit card and bank transactions of the Bulgarian leader to find corruption they can use against him in negotiations. Spies in the German government, EU officials handing EU bank data to the USA... gee what did the USA have on those EU officials that would make them do that????

    Saudi Arabia demanding US attack Iran, and Saudi Arabia throwing hundreds of billions in lobby money at the US elections. I wonder what all those newly election tea party borg will say.

    Perhaps they'll accuse Wikileaks of 'counterfeiting' the data and seize their domain too.

    It seems we have a long way to go before a normal world is resumed.
    guihombre
    • There was never a "normal" world.

      @guihombre

      Any concept of that was nothing but an illusion. Since before George Washington, governments have been keeping secretes and making deals and it has not changed.

      As for file sharing/ file share search being "free speech"? Rubbish. All I have been reading are a lot of people trying to justify their behavior as being "innocent", "not hurting anyone", "the RIAA is evil anyway", "serves the MPAA right; people pirating their stuff" and dozens of other self-justifications in an attempt to placate their own guilt.

      Basically, allot of people trying to defend how wonderful copyright infringement is.

      If you like a movie or song, buy it or rent it. If you think it is too expensive, vote with your wallet and mind and ignore it.

      Pick your battles and this is not one of them.
      Bruizer
      • I believe you're missing the point

        @Bruizer the issue isn't piracy in this particular case. Yes, piracy is a bane. But this is not the way to address it. These sites that have been seized were seized with no notice, no warrant, nothing, all by a group - Homeland Security - that is not capable, qualified, or even competent at internet policy enforcement. Even more, Homeland Security was formed to defend against what could be defined as "terror" attacks (I call them that because its real purpose could be summed up as "don't let 9/11 happen again). The expansion of the group in nine years has been startling, and it is becoming truly Orwellian, especially in a country full of politicians and people that continually parrot how "free" we are and how much "liberty" we enjoy.

        This is a battle to pick because it's part of a much larger problem that all comes around to the same end-game: the government is slowly but surely establishing control over our lives, and is doing so by specifically throwing the fourth amendment of our Constitution out the window, not to mention the first.
        superbus
      • Heavy Hand of Government

        @Bruizer First, let me say that I do believe companies and individuals do have the right to protect their intellectual property. I believe that stealing music or software over the internet is no different than sticking a CD down your pants and walking out of a music store. Both are stealing and equally bad.

        The key to the statement above is where I said "equally". RIAA and MPAA have convinced legislators that stealing something over the internet is somehow much worse than putting the CD down your pants - as evidenced by the punishment being handed out in these cases. We treat what amounts to shoplifting as if it were armed robbery. I'm not advocating shoplifting or saying it is OK. I'm just saying let the punishment fit the crime.

        In the case of shutting sown web sites, if this is allowed to happen, if I run a legitimate web site, I could be shutdown without warning. I would be forced to go to court to prove my innocence, rather than my accuser having to prove my guilt. In the case of a small business that could never afford to fight RIAA, that is the equivalent of dropping a nuclear weapon on their business. They can be utterly destroyed with no recourse and that is un-American.
        cornpie
      • RE: The Rise of Web Censorship

        @Bruizer

        If you don't stand up to protect the speech of people that you don't necessarily agree with, no one will stand up to protect your speech. This isn't about defending pirates, it's about limiting the ability of the government to deem you a terrorist capriciously and then make you a target. Yesterday it's torrent-search, today it's Mark Ruffalo, tomorrow it's you.
        hawks5999
      • RE: The Rise of Web Censorship

        @Bruizer <br>Not all torrented fles are copyrighted. I have gotten hobbycraft plans and open-ssource operating systems via torrent. Justice needs to go after the producers.
        Bob63
    • RE: The Rise of Web Censorship

      @guihombre
      This is a normal world. This the way the world has been run since the beginning of time. Where have you been living all of this time??
      eargasm
  • Websites are never gone, are they?

    I'm not an internet technical expert, but reading this it seems like the websites remain accessible, but only the DNS lookup was interfered with. So instead of the site name pointing to the owner's numerical IP address, it points to a government numerical IP address.

    I'm fairly sure that if I modify my PC's hosts file, or specify a DNS server configured for this purpose, I could reach any website -- by name -- that a government has interfered with.

    Of course, you can always access them by number, but that's clumsy.

    Given that a domain name is simply an association of a name with a number assigned to the site, it seems like protected speech to me. Further, the only effect of seizing the name is to fragment the internet into devices which can look up the site normally, and those which must work around the interference.

    (Of course, in a day when campaign cash is considered "speech" I suppose I wouldn't be surprised to learn that actual speech is something else)
    rgcustomer@...
    • RE: The Rise of Web Censorship

      @rgcustomer@... I'm pretty sure I read that DHS went directly to ICANN rather than the registrar so they could yank the IP addresses. Anyone know for sure about this?
      Bill4
      • RE: The Rise of Web Censorship

        @Bill4 The DHS isn't talking. It's believed that went directly to ICANN, but I haven't seen hard proof of it yet. COICA, if passed, would let the Feds tell non-US registries to pull sites' DNS listing, and, if they didn't, then forbid US ISPs from connecting to any sites ran by that registry. So, don't play ball, and, in theory, all U.S. ISPs might be forbidden to connect with all .uk domains. What a law!

        Steven
        sjvn
    • RE: The Rise of Web Censorship

      @rgcustomer@...
      I love your last sentence. lol!

      @superbus:
      We have never been fully free, as in, do whatever we want. We have always had laws and rules we had to abide by. As time change, so do laws and rules. Always have and always will.
      eargasm
  • RE: The Rise of Web Censorship

    @Networking
    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols
    congrats on a magnificent blog chap!
    We must sound the Trumpet Reveille Charge.ogg
    Is home land security ?Americans version of The SS ?And why are they interested in internet an programmers ? Considering that when IT first started the governments thoughts toward "snot nosed geeks" and computers . was that it was crap ! ,until it made the missiles fly In a straight line.

    Personally i don't give two squats about file sharing ,bittorrent sites make me sick. But i can say that as a hypocrite since i have terabytes of shared data :)./mnt/sda1/share/...I think the cartoon South Park described it best , in a subliminal message from the south park episode ban family guy. (the real name Cartoon Wars Part I).The idealist message from the writer's was if , we let them take down one site then eventually homeland security will crown it self Internet Police.

    Our internet business is vulnerable
    enough with out the governments sticking their 2 cents in. We have worked hard to get to this point , home land security choose the Internet because it is a easy target, masses of virtual users grow weary easily , Programmers fighting battles that they don't believe in

    A good old fashion boycott ! is required.

    P.S I'm sure i will take flames over these comments , I'll get the fire extinguisher :)
    cybursoft
    • RE: The Rise of Web Censorship

      @cybursoft
      You need more than a fire extinguisher, but not because someone might flame you. I believe it was the government that gave the internet to the geeks. However, Homeland Security Department is about providing security to the homeland, United States of America. They fall under the national security umberella. Since scums can impact national security through the internet, Home Land Security needs to know what's going on over the internet. If some site and/or sites are doing somthing they should not, they should shut them down.
      eargasm
      • RE: The Rise of Web Censorship

        @windozefreak
        You're missing the point dude! It isn't about DHS shutting down sites doing things wrong. It's about DHS shutting down sites it THINKS are doing bad things. No proof, just the suspicion. Would be like your neighbor calling ATF and saying he saw you carrying in boxes of explosives to your basement. Then they break in and seize your house without due process. THAT is what is the problem with all of this. Lack of due process before they swoop in and confiscate things.
        bigsibling
  • RE: The Rise of Web Censorship

    All that would happen is that they would mirror their servers to a place outside of usa jurisdiction (They would be foolish if this & multiple backups had not already been done)
    ronangel
  • Legislation for fun and profit

    "RIAA and MPAA have convinced legislators that stealing something over the internet is somehow much worse than putting the CD down your pants."

    They did that because they get immense financial rewards for doing so. Most legislation enacted by Congress and signed into law by the President is written for the express benefit of a small group of people - those who propose the legislation. It is NOT written and enacted for the benefit of the majority or the protection of the minority. Which is why copyright and patent law has consisentely gotten worse over the years.
    Dr_Zinj
    • RE: The Rise of Web Censorship

      @Dr_Zinj I'm an indie filmmaker whose film has been widely pirated online. ALL our income comes from downstream revenue. You are mistaken to think that the MPAA is the only victim. Go online and educate yourself about what is really out their and HOW MUCH is actually stolen before you make these claims.

      Our film is available via various legit sources (including various low-cost VOD options) but it's impossible to compete with FREE.

      These web pirates aren't in it for altruism either. These sites exist to make money off the hard work of others. They steal content, post it, place advertising on the sites, and earn money. Guess who doesn't get a dime--those who created the content.

      Lots of livelihoods are being damaged by unabated online piracy. The internet is where commerce is happening, both good and bad. It's time the law catch up with that reality.
      indiefilmmaker2010
      • I have no problem with controlling Piracy

        @indiefilmmaker2010
        What I do have a problem with is handing over the internet to a government agency that can do AS THEY SEE FIT without prior court authorization.

        This is no different than a squad of Police showing up at your door unannounced, with no warrant, storming your house and tearing it up on the sole word of the police that you're doing something bad. This is EXACTLY why warrants were invented in the first place: Abuse of power. By the way, the Patriot Act gives Federal Agents the authority to do just that (storm your house with a handwritten warrant written by the agents themselves).

        Since the Sheeple of the U.S. rolled over and took it in the rear for a false sense of security, I suspect they'll hand over a few more rights without much debate.

        I just wonder how bad it will get before the lazy and complacent masses finally realize they're no longer "free" in the "Land of the Free".
        Zorched