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Trevor Timm
Trevor Timm
Trevor Timm is an activist and blogger for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
US State Department not for internet freedom
The SOPA bill will help private companies cut off internet sites only to protect their profits.
Last Modified: 23 Nov 2011 14:43
The passage of SOPA will mean popular websites like YouTube will technically be infringing on copyright [GALLO/GETTY]

San Francisco, California: The US State Department is once again undermining its own Internet Freedom Initiative - this time by giving the green light to a copyright bill that will adversely affect online free speech around the world.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced in the House of Representatives two weeks ago, and while it does very little to stop piracy, it gives corporations unprecedented power to censor almost any site on the internet. And more vitally, it threatens the very sites and human rights activists that the State Department has previously pledged to protect.

In a letter to Rep Howard Bernman, a co-sponsor of the bill, Secretary Hillary Clinton tacitly endorsed the proposed legislation, stating, "There is no contradiction between intellectual property rights protection and enforcement and ensuring freedom of expression on the internet". Prominent supporters of the bill are now distributing the letter as a sign the State Department is behind their bill.

But what does SOPA actually do? One provision in SOPA allows the Attorney General to cut off sites from the domain name system, virtually disappearing them from the web - the "Internet death penalty" as many have called it. Foreign sites would have to submit to US jurisdiction to contest the Attorney General, a costly and timely process many will not be able to afford even if innocent. Another provision allows corporations to directly force payment processors and advertisers to cut off an alleged infringing websites' money supply - even if only a portion of the site is infringing. Still another provision gives immunity to companies who voluntarily cut off suspected infringing websites with virtually no oversight.

In her January 2010 speech announcing the State Department's Internet Freedom Initiative, Hillary laid out some of the foreign "threats to the free flow of information" that she wished to prevent in the future. "In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared," she said. "And last Friday in Egypt, 30 bloggers and activists were detained."

In the year and a half since, the State Department has had limited success promoting online awareness and circumvention tools in foreign countries. But given SOPA's incredibly broad definitions of which sites are liable under its censorship provisions - merely claiming the site "engages in, enables or facilitates" infringement is enough - it won't be long until the bill destroys social networks that spread news of protests and the anonymity software that keep activists protected.

Many tech groups worry social networks such as Facebook - which were instrumental in organising protests in Egypt - would be at risk under SOPA. Brooklyn Law School professor Derek Bambauer also argues YouTube, which hosts countless human rights videos, would be "clearly unlawful", since it allows users to upload videos that may contain copyrighted content. While Google and Facebook may have enough money and lawyers to fend off lawsuits and court orders without being shut down completely, emerging social networks in foreign countries would not. Any site hosting videos, even if they are used to draw attention to human rights abuses, will be easily derailed if an overzealous copyright holder decides to use one alleged violation to strangle the whole site.

But circumvention tools - which allow activists to foil internet censors and evade government surveillance - would be the bill's greatest casualties. While many are developed explicitly for human rights advocates, they can also be used to download copyrighted content. Tor, the anonymising software that masks users' IP addresses that was instrumental during Egypt protests, would be a prime target of copyright holders, despite being funded by the US government.

In fact, most of internet freedom programmes currently funded by State Department are in danger. Hillary has pledged millions of dollars to various companies to create a "shadow" internet "that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments", according to the New York Times. But by endorsing SOPA, Hillary is giving the green light to copyright holders to destroy it. Virtual Private Networks, proxies, privacy or anonymisation software could all potentially be deemed illegal if they can also help get around SOPA's censorship mechanisms.

Of course, this is not the first time that State Department policy has flew in the face of State Department rhetoric on the same subject. Hillary lauded "information networks [that] are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable", in the same 2010 speech. But just months later, the State Department led the charge against WikiLeaks' right to publish leaked State Department cables. Members of US government pressured private companies to stop doing business with WikiLeaks. Visa, Mastercard and PayPal complied, and a year later, WikiLeaks has been financially crippled.

Ironically, we know from the WikiLeaks cables that the State Department has also aggressively lobbied many other countries for strict new laws similar to SOPA. They have even offered to fund enforcement and literally draft the laws that sacrifice free speech for greater copyright protection for Hollywood.

Over one hundred law professors signed a letter staunchly opposing the Senate's version of this bill on constitutional grounds earlier this year. Even Google's public policy director Bob Boorstin said the bill "Would put the US government in the very position we criticise repressive regimes for doing - all in the name of copyright". Here's hoping Hillary takes a closer look and repudiates SOPA as adverse to US interests both at home and abroad.

Trevor Timm is an activist and blogger for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He specialises in free speech issues and government transparency. The views expressed here are his own.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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