U.S. proposals undermine secure, uncensored Internet

UPDATE, OCTOBER 22, 2010: CPJ’s board of directors sets policy for the organization. At the October 18 meeting of the board, directors discussed the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, known as COICA.

The September 30 blog post below incorrectly stated that CPJ had “joined with other press freedom and civil liberty organizations and the Internet’s pioneering engineers to urge the U.S. Senate to reject COICA in its current form.” After discussion, the board determined that CPJ should take no position on the proposed legislation at this time. The matter was referred to the CPJ policy committee for further review.

A bill sponsored by Sens. Hatch, left, and Leahy could damage a free Internet. (AP file)
A bill sponsored by Sens. Hatch, left, and Leahy could damage a free Internet. (AP file)

In an Internet freedom speech in January, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States stands for “a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” While the Web could be misused to propagate terrorism or steal intellectual property, she said, the administration believed that “these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the Internet for peaceful political purposes.” But Congress and other parts of the Obama administration don’t appear to have taken Clinton’s words to heart. In the last two weeks, they’ve proposed measures that would break the single Internet, damage Internet users’ privacy, and make it more difficult for the State Department or press freedom groups to argue that other countries should not censor or spy on Internet traffic.

On September 20, Sens. Patrick Leahy and Orrin Hatch introduced the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which would require U.S.-hosted domain name registrars to block, and ISPs to strike from their domain name system (DNS) servers, the addresses of websites “dedicated to infringing” on copyrights or trademarks. A week later, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration intended to pursue measures obliging Internet services such as Skype to modify their software to allow U.S. agencies to intercept users’ communications.

Ostensibly, both U.S. proposals are constrained–in the first case, to blocking sites that violate intellectual property law; and in the second to providing access for lawful interception purposes only. But they create technical precedents and infrastructure changes that can only damage the global fight for free expression and privacy online. They also contradict Clinton’s own expression of U.S. policy. COICA would require local Internet companies to diverge from the global DNS system, creating a balkanized DNS system that would dismantle the idea of a “single Internet.” The Internet wiretapping proposal deliberately weakens the encryption that provides Internet users with their best defense against illegal surveillance.

For CPJ, these bills hit even closer to home. The proposals’ technical implementations mirror actions taken recently by other countries with which CPJ has expressed concern. In Thailand, for example, removing sites from local DNS servers is one way that the country blocks independent media sites like Prachatai (whose editor, Chiranuch Premchaiporn was recently arrested). The requirement to introduce government tapping points in private software is precisely what the United Arab Emirates and other countries are demanding Research in Motion do with its BlackBerry mobile systems.

Why should others not censor controversial political speech, when the United States creates the same blocking system for mere violations of intellectual property rights? If American law enforcement can demand that every secure program be deliberately weakened to allow its agents access, wouldn’t every other country’s police have the right to insert similar insecurities into the basic code of Internet communications? Drawing a firm line against censorship and widespread surveillance becomes nearly impossible when one of the major diplomatic voices supporting that line decides to cross it itself.

CPJ has joined with other press freedom and civil liberty organizations and the Internet’s pioneering engineers to urge the U.S. Senate to reject COICA in its current form. If legislation was introduced to deliberately weaken the security of Internet communication, we would protest that also. These proposals weaken the U.S. claims to be a good steward of the Internet, and they profoundly damage the fight for online press freedom worldwide.