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Don't Break the Internet

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Two bills now pending in Congress -- the PROTECT IP Act of 2011 (Protect IP) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House -- represent the latest legislative attempts to address a serious global problem: large-scale online copyright and trademark infringement. Although the bills differ in certain respects, they share an underlying approach and an enforcement philosophy that pose grave constitutional problems and that could have potentially disastrous consequences for the stability and security of the Internet's addressing system, for the principle of interconnectivity that has helped drive the Internet's extraordinary growth, and for free expression.

To begin with, the bills represent an unprecedented, legally sanctioned assault on the Internet's critical technical infrastructure. Based upon nothing more than an application by a federal prosecutor alleging that a foreign website is "dedicated to infringing activities," Protect IP authorizes courts to order all U.S. Internet service providers, domain name registries, domain name registrars, and operators of domain name servers -- a category that includes hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses, colleges, universities, nonprofit organizations, and the like -- to take steps to prevent the offending site's domain name from translating to the correct Internet protocol address. These orders can be issued even when the domains in question are located outside of the United States and registered in top-level domains (e.g., .fr, .de, or .jp) whose operators are themselves located outside the United States.

Directing the remedial power of the courts towards the Internet's core technical infrastructure in this sledgehammer fashion has impact far beyond IP rights enforcement -- it threatens the fundamental principle of interconnectivity that is at the very heart of the Internet. The Internet's Domain Name System (DNS) is a foundational block upon which the Internet has been built and upon which its continued functioning critically depends; it is among a handful of protocols upon which almost every other protocol, and countless Internet applications, rely to operate smoothly. Court-ordered removal or replacement of entries from the series of interlocking databases that reside in domain name servers and domain name registries around the globe undermines the principle of domain name universality -- the principle that all domain name servers, wherever they may be located across the network, will return the same answer when queried with respect to the Internet address of any specific domain name. Much Internet communication, and many of the thousands of protocols and applications that together provide the platform for that communication, are premised on this principle.

Mandated court-ordered DNS filtering will also have potentially catastrophic consequences for DNS stability and security. It will subvert efforts currently underway -- and strongly supported by the U.S. government -- to build more robust security protections into the DNS protocols.

The bills take aim not only at the Internet's core technical infrastructure, but at its economic and commercial infrastructure as well. Credit card companies, banks and other financial institutions could be ordered to "prevent, prohibit, or suspend" all dealings with the site associated with the domain name. Online advertisers could be ordered to cease providing advertising services to the site associated with the domain name. Search engine providers could be ordered to "remove or disable access to the Internet site associated with the domain name," and to disable all hypertext links to the site.

These drastic consequences would be imposed against persons and organizations outside of the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts by virtue of the fiction that these prosecutorial actions are proceedings in rem, in which the "defendant" is not the operator of the site but the domain name itself. Both bills suggest that these remedies can be meted out by courts after nothing more than ex parte proceedings -- proceedings at which only one side (the prosecutor or even a private plaintiff) need present evidence and the operator of the allegedly infringing site need not be present nor even made aware that the action was pending against his or her "property."
This not only violates basic principles of due process by depriving persons of property without a fair hearing and a reasonable opportunity to be heard, it also constitutes an unconstitutional abridgement of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.

As serious as these infirmities are, SOPA -- the House's bill -- builds upon them, enlarges them, and makes them worse. Under SOPA, IP rights holders can proceed vigilante-style against allegedly offending sites, forcing credit card companies to stop dealing with websites without any court hearing.

These bills, and the enforcement philosophy that underlies them, represent a dramatic retreat from this country's tradition of leadership in supporting the free exchange of information and ideas on the Internet. At a time when many foreign governments have dramatically stepped up their efforts to censor Internet communications, these bills would incorporate into U.S. law a principle more closely associated with those repressive regimes: a right to insist on the removal of content from the global Internet, regardless of where it may have originated or be located, in service of the exigencies of domestic law.

The United States should not join the ranks of these repressive and restrictive regimes, erecting our own "virtual walls" to prevent people from accessing portions of the world's networks. Passage of these bills will compromise our ability to defend the principle of the single global Internet -- the Internet that looks the same to, and allows free and unfettered communication between, users located in Boston, Bucharest, and Buenos Aires, free of locally imposed censorship regimes. As such, it may represent the biggest threat to the Internet in its history.

Copyright and trademark infringement on the Internet is a very real problem, and IP owners need tools to deal with that problem. But the power to break the Internet shouldn't be among them.

Read the full article, "Don't Break the Internet", by Mark Lemley, David S. Levine, & David G. Post, at the Stanford Law Review Online.

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