Government Has Internet Policing in Sights

Published October 29, 2010

Congress is considering two legislative proposals that would restructure the Internet in the wake of last July’s Wikileaks disclosure of 77,000 classified Afghan war documents and its release of 15,000 more in October.

First, in the name of preventing copyright infringement, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA, also known as the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA, Act) would grant blacklist authority to the Attorney General for Internet domains whose “central” purpose is identified as infringing copyrights  The Act is currently before Congress.

Second, in the name of preventing terrorism, an “e-wiretap” bill in the works is aimed at establishing government-mandated “back doors” in all communications systems. That bill is currently being drafted.

“This is an Internet censorship bill dressed up to look like a copyright enforcement bill,” said Peter Eckersley, senior staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group. “Despite changes that were made at the end of the last Congressional session, this remains a bill that could cause law-abiding U.S. and foreign Web sites to just disappear off the Net. It threatens innovative startup businesses in several market sectors, including one-click hosting and media discovery.”

Wants to Emulate China
COICA controls would be in addition to the so-called 90-day “kill switch,” one of a slew of other proposals for government control over the Internet coming from the Obama administration. The kill switch proposal would allow the President to block Internet traffic and shut down industries that don’t follow government orders in times of national emergency.

Kill switch champion Sen. Joe Lieberman cited the Communist government of China as a model to emulate: “Right now China … can disconnect parts of its Internet in case of war, and we need to have that here, too,” he said in a CNN interview.

The kill switch power would usurp control of an existing system and so would be different in kind from the two other looming Internet measures.

Feds Could Ban Web Sites
The government control established by RIAA Act would allow the Justice Department to use U.S. court orders to shut down any Web site accused of piracy, but the attorney general could target a site even without that rationale.

As the Internet watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) notes on its Web site:,”The Attorney General can … ask a court to put sites [he designates] on a … blacklist.”
Internet service providers and registrars then would be legally required to block those sites. EFF warns “an enormous amount of non-infringing content, including political and other speech, could disappear off the Web.”

Subject to Court Order
If the site in question is based in the United States, the domain registrar could be subject to prosecution from the Attorney General. The registrars of the most common domain suffixes—such as .com, .net, and .org—are U.S.-based. 

For a non-U.S. site, the control mechanism would be the root authority, or top-level domain registrar, that constitutes the most basic control for allowing access to addresses worldwide. At present the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) enjoys an international monopoly on root registry and could be court-ordered to delist even foreign domain suffixes.

Thereafter, people typing in the domain name of, say, would get an error message.

Worldwide Censorship
By controlling the domain name system (DNS) the U.S. government could censor sites worldwide, even those operating legally within their host nations. U.S. law over the Internet would effectively become international law unless a site shifted to a foreign-controlled domain suffix (such as .se). Then international users could access it, but U.S. Internet service providers would still be required to block U.S. access.

“In addition to censoring First Amendment-protected speech and interfering with valuable innovation, the technical mechanism employed by the bill—censoring entries in the Internet’s domain name system—will have deleterious long-term consequences for the Internet’s reliability,” said Eckersley.

Wendy McElroy ([email protected]) is a research fellow for the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. Excerpted by permission from The Freeman.

On the Internet:

Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act:

“U.S. Tries to Make It Easier to Wiretap the Internet,” The New York Times:
“The COICA Internet Censorship and Copyright Bill,” Electronic Frontier Foundation Web Site: