Internet file sharing is a common occurrence in the modern world. Online sharing networks like Mediafire, Rapidshare and 4Shared allow anyone to upload any kind of media or program for free public download. Dropbox, familiar to many students, provides a single copy of a document or media file to be viewed and edited among invited group members. BitTorrent websites allow for downloads of most media files. Even the popular YouTube can be considered a sharing website, since it allows free upload and viewing of any kind of video. Sharing is useful when used for legitimate means, but has recently come under fire because of how easy it is to illegally distribute copyrighted materials. In response, the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA) was introduced to the U.S. Senate by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont last September.
If a website is hosting illegally uploaded copies of copyrighted media, COICA would allow media corporations to request the addition of the domain name in question to a federal “blacklist.” Any website on the blacklist would be immediately seized by the Attorney General. Seized websites would become completely unavailable to anyone within the United States who attempts to reach the website through its domain. The domain would still be accessible through non-U.S. based proxy servers or by directly accessing the website’s IP address, but attempts to access via the domain name would bring up a notice of seizure by the U.S. government.
Proponents of COICA include most publishing and media corporations, since it would effectively shut down internet media piracy and, in theory, increase business and revenue. Sources of opposition to the bill include the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Swedish Pirate Party, who have labeled COICA a type of censorship bill for its ability to limit what is allowed to be shared online. Although the bill only targets copyrighted media distribution, it is seen as a stepping stone for future and more severe measures of internet censorship by the U.S. government. Fueling this fear is the federal seizure of 82 domain names without warning in November, and the fact that the majority of these websites still remain inaccessible.
On the surface, COICA seems like a bill with good intentions — shut down the illegal online media trade and protect the sources of copyrighted media. But the biggest problem presented is just how much of the vast internet would be affected by COICA. “Illegally distributed copyrighted material” isn’t just limited to torrent websites like isoHunt and Pirate Bay. For anime and manga fans out there, it would include free anime and manga scan websites. Websites like Youtube and MegaVideo would be forced to purge their libraries of user-uploaded movies, TV shows, and music to avoid seizure. Even search engines like Google would be pressured to remove links to blacklisted sites. And don’t forget the advertising companies, who would lose profit due to the loss of high-traffic websites.
It should be noted that the opposition to COICA is not due to what it is trying to prevent, but the potential power it would provide the U.S. government if passed. The very idea that the federal government can blacklist something on the internet it deems inappropriate without any kind of trial is frankly terrifying. Internet censorship has been notorious in China for over a decade, but was always looked down upon in the United States. COICA passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously, but has been tabled for discussion for at least a year and is considered a controversial topic in the Senate. Hopefully it will gain enough opposition in a year’s time to lose some support, but until then, the threat it poses to file sharing and internet liberty will loom on the horizon.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Reporter.