The Connection Between Wikileaks Censorship And PROTECT IP: Censorship Through Cutting Off Service Providers
from the this-is-a-problem dept
The always thought-provoking Yochai Benkler, has a new paper, which, unfortunately (and pointlessly given Benkler’s key points — see update below), is locked up behind an MIT paywall. It explores the “new vector” for censorship found in both the attacks on Wikileaks and the PROTECT IP Act: censorship by forcing service providers to not do business with certain websites. As the abstract notes:
The WikiLeaks affair and proposed copyright bills introduced in the Senate are evidence of a new, extralegal path of attack aimed at preventing access and disrupting the payment systems and advertising of targeted sites. In this model, the attacker may be a government agency seeking to circumvent constitutional constraints on its power or a private company trying to enforce its interests beyond those afforded by procedural or substantive safeguards in the law. The vector of attack runs through the targeted site’s critical service providers, disrupting technical services, such as Domain Name System service, cloud storage, or search capabilities; and business-related services, such as payment systems or advertising. The characteristics that make this type of attack new are that it targets an entire site, rather than aiming for removal or exclusion of specific offending materials; operates through denial of business and financial systems, in addition to targeting technical systems; and systematically harnesses extralegal pressure to achieve results beyond what law would provide or even permit.
As he notes, the law has historically focused on narrowly targeting any attack on speech by removing just the offending works. That’s about the only way that such efforts could line up with the First Amendment (and some may reasonably even argue that point). Yet with government pressure from the likes of Senator Joe Lieberman and the new PROTECT IP Act, they now go for scorched earth policies in which a variety of service providers are suddenly pressured or required to no longer do business with the sites in question. Payment processors, “information location tools,” ad networks and DNS providers are all told they have to cut off the offending site. While the site itself may not be touched, the goal is to effectively starve such sites out, by blocking most reasonable services that such a site needs to exist.
While putting tremendous compliance burdens on those third party service providers, it also goes against the very fundamentals of the First Amendment in that it doesn’t merely seek to stop illegal speech, but takes a broad attack against entire sites. The risk here was clearly laid out earlier this year by over 100 law professors including many of the most respected in the field. The other side has only trotted out one lawyer on their side: Floyd Abrams (who, while famous as a First Amendment lawyer, also does a lot of work with Hollywood). Supporters of this massive threat to the First Amendment keep pretending that as long as they say “Floyd Abrams says it’s fine!” that they can ignore everyone else raising serious and significant First Amendment concerns. The problem, of course, is that even Abrams’ “support” is pretty weak.
In fact, if you read what Abrams actually says (pdf), at points he appears to come out against provisions of PROTECT IP as violating the First Amendment. Such as this:
Any bill providing injunctive relief should be limited to halting infringement and prohibiting future infringement online, not acting as a prior restraint on protected speech in the future. For example, if a site or domain is seized or blocked for infringement, operators must be free to post all their non-infringing content elsewhere, as well as on their original site, once the infringing content is removed.
Except, as we’ve seen with the Puerto 80 case, the government does not allow site operators to repost non-infringing content on their original site at all. Given that Benkler, in the paper above, compares PROTECT IP to the Wikileaks situation, it should equally come as no surprise that Abrams last year ran into some problems for misrepresenting Wikileaks’ actions in trying to support censoring that site.
In the long run, I find it difficult to see how one can be intellectually honest and side with Abrams on these issues, as compared to Benkler, who makes a pretty compelling case that these kinds of attacks on free speech are something to be worried about.
Update: Benkler sends over a link to a non-paywalled version (pdf).