"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busy bodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience." -- C.S. Lewis
Americans have seen their freedoms decline on almost every front over the past decade. We have been spied on by surveillance cameras, eavesdropped on by government agents, had our belongings searched, our phones tapped, our mail opened, our email monitored, our opinions questioned, our purchases scrutinized (under the USA Patriot Act, banks are required to analyze your transactions for any patterns that raise suspicion and to see if you are connected to any objectionable people), and our activities watched. We've also been subjected to invasive patdowns and whole-body scans of our persons and seizures of our electronic devices in the nation's airports. We can't even purchase certain cold medicines at the pharmacy anymore without it being reported to the government and our names being placed on a watch list.
One of the few things that has kept us teetering on the edge of a full slide into tyranny is the internet, the primary source of news and information for many people and the only place left where citizens still have the opportunity to freely speak their minds and exercise their First Amendment rights. It has also become a vital resource for activists and protesters in their efforts to raise awareness about injustice, record evidence of government abuse and organize demonstrations. Little wonder, then, that federal and state governments continue to try to gain control of the world wide web. After all, he who controls the internet controls the world.
In recent years, we have witnessed numerous attempts by the government, aided by its corporate allies, to gain control of the internet for purposes of regulation, surveillance and censorship. In fact, back in 2005, John Ashcroft, George Bush's Attorney General, urged the FCC to require that internet communications be easier to wiretap. Then there was the internet "kill switch" legislation introduced in 2010 by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) to give the White House the power to kill the internet during a "national cyberemergency" without any review by the courts. That same year the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was preparing to submit legislation to Congress that would make it easier for the government to wiretap the internet. As Charlie Savage noted, "Essentially, officials want Congress to require all services that enable communications -- including encrypted email transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct 'peer to peer' messaging like Skype -- to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order."
The National Security Agency (NSA) has also been designing an artificial intelligence system that is designed to anticipate your every move based on your internet activity. In a nutshell, the NSA will feed vast amounts of the information it collects to a computer system known as Aquaint (the acronym stands for Advanced QUestion Answering for INTelligence), which the computer can then use to detect patterns and predict behavior. No information is sacred or spared. Everything from cell phone recordings and logs, to emails, to text messages, to personal information posted on social networking sites, to credit card statements, to library circulation records, to credit card histories, etc., is collected by the NSA. One NSA researcher actually quit the program, "citing concerns over the dangers in placing such a powerful weapon in the hands of a top-secret agency with little accountability."
By the time you add in Facebook's facial recognition technology, corporate opposition to Net Neutrality legislation, and data retention mandates by Congress, any semblance of hope for anonymity on the internet is lost. Similarly, President Obama's plan to create an online ID system which would aid in verifying the identity of internet users communicating and initiating transactions on the web was yet another thinly disguised attempt to monitor, regulate and control the internet. It would also give the government unprecedented access to Americans' internet activities -- something it has sought for years through a multitude of channels. Then in late July 2011, the House Judiciary Committee passed the cleverly titled "Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011," which lays the groundwork for all internet traffic to be easily monitored by government officials.
Now we have the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), currently making its way through the House of Representatives, and its sister legislation in the Senate, the Protect IP Act (PIPA), which are supposedly intended to combat copyright violations on the Internet. Unfortunately, these bills are written so broadly so as to not only eliminate Internet piracy but replace the innovative and democratic aspects of the Internet with a tangled bureaucratic mess regulated by the government and corporations.
Naturally, the bill's major backers -- who have put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pockets of members of Congress -- are those who stand to benefit most from the implementation of currently existing copyright laws. These include such large corporate entities as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Screen Actors Guild, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and major drug companies such as Pfizer (the latter are supporting the bill because it will target advertisements for knockoff medications).
While holding companies accountable for their role in copyright infringement is important, this legislation threatens to turn the whole Internet on its head, disrupting innovation in business and technology and muting democratic dialogue, by allowing copyright holders to unilaterally impose sanctions on companies accused of copyright infringement without due process. Based solely on an accusation (not a conviction, mind you) of a copyright violation, the U.S. Attorney General, and sometimes the copyright holding companies themselves, will be able to block access to and business transactions with websites accused of such violations. Financial institutions will be forced to stop transferring legal funds to accused websites, search engines will be forced to block accused websites, and advertisers will be forced to stop placing ads on accused websites.
Moreover, the bill is written so broadly as to override the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which allows social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to operate freely. Unfortunately, under SOPA, if a user on YouTube or Facebook were to mistakenly or unintentionally upload copyrighted material to the sites, those websites could also be shut down. The legislation could also override an existing Internet security protocol, DNSSEC, which protects Internet users from hackers that attempt to redirect web traffic to imposter websites in order to steal their personal information.
Google, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Twitter, and eBay have all expressed concerns with the legislation, fearing the implications of having to micromanage user-submitted content in order to avoid liability for copyright infringement. There is also congressional opposition to the bill, with a wide variety of politicians, including Nancy Pelosi, Darrell Issa, Ron Paul, and Michele Bachmann, having voiced objections to it. Civil liberties and human rights groups, including the ACLU and Reporters Without Borders, have come out against the bill as well.
The last bastion of democracy is the internet, and the government is well aware of this. The Internet has proven critical for the flow of information, the evolution of business, and the democratization of political discussion. Passing the Stop Online Piracy Act would undo all of the great things which have been achieved via the power of the Internet.
Even if this legislation is stalled, however, the government will find others to achieve its ultimate goal: total control -- of the nation, of the internet, and ultimately of you and me.
Follow John W. Whitehead on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rutherford_inst