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Will Internet censorship bill be pushed through lame-duck Congress?

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A bill giving the government the power to shut down Web sites that host materials that infringe copyright is making its way quietly through the lame-duck session of Congress, raising the ire of free-speech groups and prompting a group of academics to lobby against the effort.

The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) was introduced in Congress this fall by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). It would grant the federal government the power to block access to any Web domain that is found to host copyrighted material without permission.

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Critics say the bill is both a giveaway to the movie and recording industries and a step towards widespread and unaccountable censorship of the Internet.

Opponents note that the powers given the government under the bill are very broad. Because the bill targets domain names and not specific materials, an entire Web site can be shut down. So for example, if the US determines that there are copyright-infringing materials on YouTube, it could theoretically block access to all of YouTube, whether or not particular material being accessed infringes copyright.

Activist group DemandProgress, which is running a petition against the bill, argues the powers in the bill could be used for political purposes. If the whistleblower Web site WikiLeaks is found to be hosting copyrighted material, for instance, access to WikiLeaks could be blocked for all US Internet users.

Though the bill was delayed in September after an outcry from activist groups, it now appears to be back and potentially poised for quick passage in the lame-duck session of Congress, reports DemandProgress.

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A group of academics, led by Temple University law professor David Post, have signed a petition opposing COICA.

“The Act, if enacted into law, would fundamentally alter U.S. policy towards Internet speech, and would set a dangerous precedent with potentially serious consequences for free expression and global Internet freedom,” Post wrote in the petition letter (PDF).

The bill is “awful on many fronts,” he wrote at Volokh Conspiracy. “It would allow a court to effectively shut down a site operated out of Brazil, or France, without any adversary hearing … or any reasoned determination that the site actually is engaged in unlawful activity.”

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“Even more significant and more troubling, the Act represents a retreat from the United States’ historical position as a bulwark and beacon against censorship and other threats to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and the free exchange of information and ideas around the globe.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a list of Web sites it believes are at highest risk of being shut down under the proposed law. Included in the list are file-hosting services such as Rapidshare and Mediafire, music mash-up sites like SoundCloud and MashupTown, as well as “sites that discuss and advocate for P2P technology or for piracy,” such as pirate-party.us and P2PNet.

A TOOL FOR POLITICAL CENSORSHIP?

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Free speech advocates argue that Internet censorship laws are inevitably used for purposes other than the ones claimed by lawmakers.

For instance, Australia in recent years set up a “firewall” around its Internet, with the intention of blacklisting child pornography Web sites. But a list of the blocked sites, leaked to Wikileaks, showed that the Australian government was censoring more than porn: The blacklist contained religious and political Web sites.

According to the Melbourne Age:

But about half of the sites on the list are not related to child porn and include a slew of online poker sites, YouTube links, regular gay and straight porn sites, Wikipedia entries, euthanasia sites, websites of fringe religions such as satanic sites, fetish sites, Christian sites, the website of a tour operator and even a Queensland dentist.

“It seems to me as if just about anything can potentially get on the list,” [University of Sydney associate professor Bjorn] Landfelt said.

As predicted by some critics, the “great Aussie firewall” ended up blocking access to parts of WikiLeaks.

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