If you thought China’s Internet censorship was evil, think again. American moves to clean up the Web could hurt global surfers
TWO PARTICULARLY terrible pieces of legislation — the PROTECT-IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) — have been introduced in the US Senate and House of Representatives. If passed, the US administration will be empowered to shut down specific websites using the same four measures it employed in its failed attempt to shut down WikiLeaks — domain name system (DNS) filtering, blocking financial transfers via financial intermediaries, revoking hosting and sanitising search engine results. SOPA represents the perfect policy interest overlap between a State clamping down on freedom of expression and IPR-holders protecting their obsolete business models. After all it was Bono who publicly articulated the unspoken desire of many right-holders: “We know from China’s ignoble effort to suppress online dissent that it’s perfectly possible to track content.”
China fortunately only censors the Internet for its own citizens, the Great Firewall does not, for example, prevent access to knowledge by Indian netizens. SOPA will enable the US to censor the global Internet unilaterally. The Great Firewall can be circumvented using tools like Tor, but SOPA will in many ways make its targets disappear for the average user. DNS filtering, even when implemented in a single country, has global consequences. DNS, one of the foundational mechanisms of the Internet, is an address look-up service that allows users to translate domain names (e.g. cisindia.org — easier for humans to remember) into IP addresses (e.g. 126.96.36.199 — easier for machines). The most critical servers in the global DNS hierarchy are the root servers, or today’s server clusters. Mandated DNS filtering would result in some DNS servers returning different IP addresses than other DNS servers for certain domain names. With PROTECT-IP and SOPA, these global consequences would be at unprecedented levels given that seven of the 13 server clusters that constitute the DNS root fall within US jurisdiction. We already have some indication where this is headed. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency announced recently that it has seized 150 domain names for alleged IPR infringement.
We must remember that IPR policy in some countries has been configured in public interest to take advantage of the exceptions and limitations afforded by the TRIPS (trade-related aspects of IPR) agreement. In others, even though the letter of the law goes beyond TRIPS requirements, access by ordinary citizens is protected because of poor enforcement of these maximalist policies. E-commerce platforms that sell Micromax, Karbonn, Spice and Lava mobile phones that are manufactured in China may be taken offline because an American court is convinced of patent infringement. An online publisher of George Orwell’s books, which are public domain in Russia, India and South Africa but still under copyright in the US and Europe, may have its Paypal account blocked.
After the witch-hunt against WikiLeaks, policymakers have realised the extent of American hypocrisy
In the recent past, activists in authoritarian regimes and democracies with draconian Internet laws have leveraged US Internet freedom rhetoric. This was first deployed by Hillary Clinton in early 2010 after Google’s melodramatic withdrawal from China. Even then, many observers were convinced that this was just selective tokenism and the real agenda was domination of global markets by US-based MNCs. Today, after the witch-hunts against WikiLeaks and Anonymous, global policymakers have realised the extent of American hypocrisy.
Fortunately, opposition for SOPA has cut across traditional political and ideological divides — libertarians, liberal human rights organisations and political conservatives who believe in small government and also modern- day capitalists like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Let us pray that Kapil Sibal registers his protest with the Obama administration to protect the online aspirations of millions of Indian citizens and entrepreneurs.
Sunil Abraham is Executive director, centre for internet and society.