Even Without COICA, White House Asking Registrars To Voluntarily Censor 'Infringing' Sitesfrom the censorship-through-political-pressure? dept
by Mike Masnick
Oct. 01, 2010
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While there's been increasing attention paid to the "Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act" (COICA), the proposed law that would allow the government to require ISPs and registrars to block access to websites deemed to be "dedicated to infringing activities," it looks like the White House (which we had thought was against censoring the internet) appears to be working on a backup plan in case COICA doesn't pass.
That is, while most folks have been focused on COICA, the White House's Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (IP Czar) Victoria Espinel has apparently been holding meetings with ISPs, registrars, payment processors and others to get them to agree to voluntarily do what COICA would mandate. While the meeting is carefully focused on stopping websites that sell gray market pharmaceuticals, if registrars start agreeing to censoring websites at the behest of the government, it's as if we're halfway to a COICA-style censorship regime already. ICANN, who manages the internet domain name system was asked to attend the meeting, but felt that it "was not appropriate to attend" such a meeting.
While Espinel has certainly been a lot more open to talking with those of us concerned about the state of intellectual property laws (and has actually seemed quite willing to pay attention to what we're saying -- which I appreciate), these kinds of meetings appear quite troubling. I understand why the meetings are focused on so-called "illegal pharmacies," because then everyone supporting these actions can hide behind the claim of "protecting Americans from dangerous fake drugs." But the truth is that while some online pharmacies are quite questionable, many are simply "gray market" attempts to import drugs to the US from elsewhere where the identical drugs are sold for much less. In a global economy, that should be allowed. In fact, one could argue that keeping drugs artificially expensive in the US does a lot more harm to Americans than the chance of them getting a fake pill.
On top of that, it seems out of line for the US government to be involved in pressuring these companies, whether they're ISPs, domain registrars, payment processors or ICANN itself, to "voluntarily" block websites without a trial or due process. Yes, I can recognize that there can be legitimate health concerns with some of these websites, but those are better dealt with elsewhere. If a company is selling fake or harmful drugs, then laws within that country should be able to deal with it. If there are concerns about such drugs getting across the border, then it seems like a matter for border control. Asking internet companies to act as de facto "voluntary" censors seems like a big step too far.
And, of course, if it starts with such gray market pharmacies, you can only imagine how long it will take until the RIAA/MPAA/etc. come calling for the same sort of "voluntary cooperation" from the same companies for sites "dedicated to infringing activities," potentially killing off all sorts of innovation, before the market has a chance to adapt. When world wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and tons of other internet luminaries have come out against COICA, shouldn't the White House be a bit more careful before trying to get various internet players to voluntarily do the same thing with even less due process?