Poll: Should the U. S. federal government censor the Internet?

The TechRepublic Windows Blog member poll question of the week: Should the U. S. Federal Government censor the Internet?

There is a bill winding its way through the U. S. federal legislative process called the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA). If it were to become law, the Federal Department of Justice of the United States could effectively take down an entire website by blocking access via the DNS servers. ISPs would remove the offending website from the DNS or be liable for fines and other legal actions.

I first saw the story via Twitter and a blog post on Techdirt, "The 19 Senators Who Voted to Censor the Internet." However, the follow-up blog post on that site, "Why Voting for COICA Is a Vote for Censorship," does an excellent job of explaining some of the problems the law causes with regard to the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. The principle of "prior restraint" is one of my favorite Constitutional precedents, and thankfully it has been a thorn in the side for many overreaching pieces of ill-conceived legislation.

On a side note, it was fascinating to see how the news of this potential law passing the initial legislative hurdle played out in more mainstream media, like this wire alert from Reuters, "US Senate Panel Passes Bill against Piracy Websites." Notice how the emphasis is on the purported copyright infringing websites and not the potential for infringing free speech. The Techdirt blog post and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have a much different perspective.

As part of a major player in the media-publishing industry, I can certainly understand how CBS, CBS Interactive, and all of our colleagues in industry would want to protect copyrighted material. But there are already well-established laws protecting copyrights, and there are methods for addressing any infringement of those rights. The language in the COICA is too broad to stand up to a constitutional challenge, and it should be abandoned.

Besides, just removing the domain name from the DNS Server is not really going to block any tech-savvy person from reaching a website flagged under this potential law anyway. The website will still exist; all you need to know to get to it is the IP address. A determined person of modest technical abilities will be able to circumvent the access-blocking procedure.

So, the COICA is too broad, potentially harms the principles of free speech, could be easily abused, and would be totally ineffective. I think you can clearly see what my thoughts are on the subject. What about your thoughts? Is the law necessary? Does it go too far? Not far enough? Won't technology just get around these blocks to access? Take the poll and join the discussion to let us know.

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By Mark Kaelin

Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.