from the censorship dept
The hearing was mostly pretty bland (as Congressional hearings tend to be), but at one point, Robert Atkinson, the President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) argued that the US should be encouraging global censorship if it's for sites like The Pirate Bay. You can watch the portion of the video below (it should start at the right moment, but if not, jump to 1 hour, 27 minutes and 40 seconds):
I think it's an untenable project that we would end up with "global harmony" on every single rule with regard to the internet. We're not going to be able to do that. And we're certainly not going to be able to do that with free speech. There are certain countries, particularly more traditional, religious countries that find pornography objectionable. We don't with our... or at least we have free speech, we may find it objectionable, but we allow it. We're not going to agree on that. And for certain things like that, countries are going to do that and I think we just have to be okay with that.Where to start? Well, how about I let Atkinson debunk Atkinson. In the question immediately preceding this one about blocking websites, Nadler had asked Atkinson about backdooring encryption. And there, Atkinson gave a much better answer, noting that it was a terrible idea (he's right!), but then notes:
Another example is in Germany, you're not allowed to download a copy of Mein Kampf. In the US, we can. Again, we're not going to change the German view. I don't know if they're right or wrong. It doesn't make any difference.
Where we can and should, though, take action, is there are some things that are clearly illegal under the WTO framework for intellectual property, for example piracy and intellectual property theft can be prosecuted. So when countries engage in steps, for example, to block certain websites that are clear piracy sites -- like, for example, a web or a domain called "the pirate bay" that should be quite... you know we should be encouraging that. That's quite different than blocking, say, Facebook or something like that, or blocking some site just because you don't want competition.
If they try to mandate that, they're setting a dangerous precedent, for example, by letting the Chinese government do the exact same thing.Uh. Yeah. And having the US government "encourage" censoring websites also sets a dangerous precedent by letting the Chinese government (and lots of other governments) point to the US as doing the same thing they do. But, as Atkinson and other copyright system supporters will undoubtedly scream, "that's different -- this is about copyright, not censorship." Yeah, well, you're not paying attention if you don't recognize how copyright is used for political censorship as well. Remember how Russia was using copyright law to intimidate its critics? What you might not remember is that when China first set up its massive online censorship system, known as the Great Firewall of China, one of its key justifications to the outside world was that it would be used to stop piracy online. And, of course, during the big SOPA/PIPA fight, the Chinese were laughing at those of us in America who whined about their Great Firewall, while we were debating a proposal to set up an identical system.
Of course, it's no surprise that Atkinson is making this argument. The organization he runs, ITIF, is frequently credited with first proposing the ideas behind SOPA in a white paper that came out right before the SOPA push. And ITIF famously argued in favor of SOPA by pointing to authoritarian countries who censor the internet as proof that SOPA wasn't that harmful. Yes, Atkinson's own firm suggested that the US should emulate China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and a number of other countries in censoring the internet. But, you know, "just for copyright."
And this doesn't even get to the issue of Atkinson's assured statement that certain sites are "clear piracy sites." Except, as we've noted over and over again, almost every great innovation around content delivery was decried as a "tool for piracy" originally. Radio, TV, cable TV, the photocopier, the VCR, the DVR, the mp3 player and YouTube and similar sites were all attacked as piracy tools originally. And yet every one of them actually opened up new and important arenas for content creation, distribution and monetization. What looks like a piracy tool in the early days often becomes a massive and legitimate business opportunity soon after (again: it was just four years after the MPAA's Jack Valenti declared VCR's the "Boston Strangler" to the film industry that home video revenues surpassed box office revenues).
Either way, what Atkinson was saying here is both shocking and dangerous. He's outright advocating a censorship regime based on his belief of what is and is not appropriate -- and suggesting that the US should "encourage" other countries to censor the web without legal due process, without consideration for innovation, because he has decided which sites are bad. At the end he says that blocking The Pirate Bay is not like blocking Facebook. Yet, there are many people who argue that Facebook is, similarly, a giant piracy site. Whose definition is right in that context? And the same question can be asked about YouTube. Viacom sued YouTube claiming that it was just as bad as the Pirate Bay. Would Atkinson support countries blocking all access to YouTube "under the WTO"?
There is a rather astounding level of cognitive dissonance that some people, such as Atkinson have, around issues related to copyright and censorship. They assume, incorrectly, that copyright is some magical fairy tale world where it's never used for censorship, and thus it's fine to block "bad sites" where people like Atkinson get to decide what is and what is not bad. But all he's doing is encouraging internet censorship, and giving massive amounts of cover to authoritarian regimes who want to censor the internet for all sorts of reasons. They can easily take Atkinson's claims that we must encourage censorship over copyright and either abuse copyright for that purpose, or even just twist it slightly to note "well, blocking infringement is important to the US, and we feel the same way about political unrest."
Atkinson's ITIF lost its battle for SOPA nearly four years ago. It shouldn't try to reintroduce the idea of a global platform for internet censorship today.