I have met Senator Patrick Leahy in person several times and owe him a personal debt of gratitude. Over the years I have been impressed by how he has conducted himself in politics. He is, however, dead wrong in his introduction of the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) act together with Senator Orin Hatch of Utah and sadly also co-sponsored by New York’s Chuck Schumer. COICA essentially establishes Internet Blacklists and gives ISPs immunity when they enforce the blacklists, meaning you can’t sue your ISP for suppressing a site that is on the blacklist. The current version of the bill proposes two separate blacklists: one that can be added to only by courts and another that can be added to by Attorney Generals. Sites would be added, according to the bill, if they are dedicated to infringing activity, such as making lots of copyrighted material available for download.
Everybody should read this great summary of the bill and why it is a bad idea. After reading that I would encourage you to sign the petition to stop the bill (on the same page). I also encourage everyone to check out this powerful view of who has been lobbying in support of COICA. If you have been paying attention to this set of issues, the name of the bill will also ring a bell. With its use of the word “counterfeits” it is clearly linked to the equally misguided international effort known as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which I have decried previously.
Now just to give you some idea of how incredibly bad an idea this is. Imagine a future conversation between Attorney Generals and oh say Craigslist. AGs: “We’ll have you added to the Blacklist” CL: “We are not infringing any copyrights” AGs: “You can fight that in court - *after* the entire country has lost access to your site.” The power of threatened law suits alone was enough to get Craigslist to shutter its perfectly legal adult services section — now imagine the change in the balance of power if there is a way to eradicate a site from the Internet.
If you care about freedom and democracy you do not want to give the government a wholesale way to shut down access to sites on the Internet. The potential downside from abuses of such as system far outweigh the upside to copyright holders. We badly need an Internet Bill of Rights that codifies basic notions of freedom of access so that we don’t have to fight this fight over and over again.