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Oh, the Hypocrisy: Congress Is Fine With a 'Government Takeover of the Internet'

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Next week, the "government takeover of the Internet" meme will be on full display in the U.S. Congress. People will be able to see what it means when the government goes after vital parts of the Internet with a vengeance.

The sad part is the U.S. Congress is largely OK with it.

The difference, you see, is that a "government takeover" of the Internet is fine, as long as it is for a good cause. For those members of Congress who wish to give AT&T, Verizon and Comcast/NBC free rein over the Internet, protecting consumers while stimulating competition, creating jobs and promoting innovation is not a good cause.

On the other hand, many in Congress believe messing with the essential plumbing of the Internet and removing web sites is a good cause if done on behalf of Sony, Disney and Comcast/NBC, and the rest of the Big Media crowd. Not that the big entertainment complex doesn't have the ways and means of protecting itself, mind you, but isn't it better if a whole slew of government agencies are out there spending public money on your behalf?

So on Feb. 16, the House Communications Subcommittee will hold a hearing to rake the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over the rhetorical coals for daring to put up some vague rules that may put some imitations on the big telecom companies. What the FCC did was traditional telecommunications regulation -- the kind of thing it is supposed to do. What the FCC did was nothing near a "government takeover of the Internet" as the accusation will fly at the subcommittee hearing. Even so, much of the hearing will be devoted to legislation that would nullify even the weak protections the FCC enacted.

However, across the Capitol on the same day, the Senate Judiciary Committee will have a hearing that will really concern a government takeover of the Internet as the Committee again takes on the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) introduced by Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Shutting down Web sites that supposedly offer infringing content is a top priority of the Chamber of Commerce this year. Leahy introduced his bill last year, and it got through his Committee but it was not considered by the full Senate. He has yet to introduce it again this year.

Talk about "government takeover" of the Internet. Leahy's bill from last year would allow just about anyone to start a legal action to remove a Web site from the Domain Name Service (the technical service that translates a web site name, like www.publicknowledge.org into the Internet Protocol number of the site, 64.34.163.6, which is how Web requests are routed) if that organization "reasonably believes" a site is "dedicated to infringing activities." No official permission is needed. So if, for example, Viacom, which lost its $1 billion copyright suit against YouTube, could go to a central Internet routing company like Verisign and ask that YouTube.com be removed from the domain name system. Even if they were wrong, Viacom would have legal immunity from lawsuits.

The so-called "vigilante" provision is only one way in which the government "takes over" the Internet. The bill provides other justifications for making Web sites appear invisible to the Web by de-listing the domain name, all based on vague definitions that could rope in any social-media platform, auction site or video-sharing site, which even apply if the site has no knowledge of illegal activity. Copyright law is being rewritten at the behest of big media. It's almost as if the Internet world of today would have to return to the pre-VCR world of 1983 before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled those devices were legal.

It's no wonder that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the most tech-savvy Senators, blocked the bill from Senate consideration last year and said: "Deploying this statute to combat online copyright and infringement seems almost like a bunker buster cluster bomb when really what you need is a precision-guided missile." It's more the pity that others didn't join him, but they rarely do when the fortunes of big entertainment companies are being protected. Wyden also said he would block any bill this year that had the same provisions.

Leahy's bill is only one manifestation of the government "takeover of the Internet" in the name of enforcing copyright. The Department of Homeland Security is out there seizing domain names, and Wyden isn't happy about that, either. Under the Department's "In Our Sites" enforcement program, sites are simply shut down, without any chance to the businesses in question to clear themselves. Wyden noted that one one site, the allegedly infringing music was provided to dajaz1.com by the music industry -- a fact of which the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency was unaware.

In fact, ICE iced a Spanish site, rojadirecta.org, which has already been cleared by a Spanish court of infringing copyrights and has never been guilty of anything in the U.S. That, too, smacks more of a "government takeover" than anything the FCC has done. A U.S. law enforcement agency operates at the direction of a special interest to shut down web sites that the special interest doesn't like.

While the conservative position is to blame the FCC for over-reaching, the rest of the government is hard at work really over-reaching. The new Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (IPEC), yes, there is a position to safeguard those things, boasted that law enforcement has taken down 90 domains already, with investigations and prosecutions ratcheting up.

The zeal of the government only matches the private-sector deal the big media companies have already shown. They will sue anyone and everyone. The latest targets are sites like rapidshare.com and hotfile.com which let customers upload large files that would choke the normal Internet tubes. Many people find them convenient. Companies find them convenient, even entertainment companies like Warner Brothers and EMI.

The companies protect their users' privacy so that no one has the run of the site, and users determine who can see what. They have on their web sites the policies they follow in case of accusations of copyright infringement. There are "report abuse" and "privacy policy" links on home pages.

No matter. In the hands of the entertainment industry, privacy is a crime. In its Feb. 8 lawsuit against Hotfile, the studios said: "To conceal the scope of its infringement, Hotfile does not provide a searchable index of the files available for download from its website." To recap, because they can't get in to see what's there, the studios assume that the purpose of protecting customer privacy is to conceal a crime. There's no proof of any crime in that sentence, or in any of the 22 pages of allegations that make up the whole suit.

It won't be a surprise if the government takeover of the Internet goes after upload sites also at the direction of the private sector directing the enforcement efforts. Just as rojadirecta was cleared by a Spanish court, Rapidshare was cleared by a German one and had a case against it dismissed last year. No matter. Storing files is a crime when the Big Media companies can't get at them.

The arrogance of the entertainment industry knows no bounds. Not only do they sue on sight, but they even threatened to cut off Google from Internet access. If anyone really wants to look at a "government takeover" of the Internet, this is where they should start to look and follow the trail.

In addition to the government shutting down sites and seizing domains, it also reportedly wants veto power over top-level domains like ".xxx" if those names are considered "objectionable." And out there in the distance is the mythical "kill switch" to allow the government to do in emergencies here what Egyptian authorities did there. (Not that the government needs one. A simple phone call would probably do.)

So, yes, let's talk about a government takeover of the Internet. But it's not happening at the FCC, and such talk is a distraction from where the real action is taking place -- actions that hypocritical legislators heartily endorse.