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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Is COICA really that bad?

Nope.  It’s not.  Sorry fear-mongers and Chicken Littles of cyberspace, but the bill currently being touted as a dictatorial takeover of the internet is far from the monster that it’s being made out to be.

I posted a blog on this yesterday, which earned me an unexpected round of angry emails from both far left and far right kooks.  I should say that I’m flattered by all of it, though disappointed that none of them chose to voice their objections on my comments section.  From the tone, I’m guessing they were fearful that posting a contradictory opinion here might earn them a top spot on the Illuminati black list.

I'm just putting this in to scare them.

So sorry to disappoint this spattering of vociferous opponents of COICA (many of whom expressed a curious ignorance of the limits of anatomy related to which extremities can be lodged in which orifices), but I am not with the Men In Black or some secretive disinformation agency.  I’m just some dude who likes to write.  Hell, my new sworn enemies now make up about half of the total readership of this blog so I’m really happy to have you.

Especially “Axlgreez” who said (original spelling and choice of homophones):

“Your obviusly just too dumb too see whats relly going to happen if they pass that bill…”

I must admit, it hurts to have one’s intelligence called into question by a guy who can’t figure out spellcheck, but after a day’s worth of research, I’m confident that he is mistaken.  As you may recall from my previous blog, I did not come out in support of the bill itself.  Rather I objected to the alarmist language that was being used to describe it.
Political discourse

Much of the banter seems to be coming from normally reasonable Aaron Swartz, a kind of level-headed software mogul that started earning cred on the web when he was fourteen.  He is usually one of the first to sound the “Red Coats are Coming” alarms when a law is proposed that in any way affects the autonomy of the internet.

It seems that he, like many, simply disagree in principle with the idea that the internet should be governed at all.  I suppose this is a nice notion and it has more or less worked until now, but it is unrealistic to think that things can continue as they are.  Illegal downloads are already decimating the entertainment industry and aggregate sites have effectively destroyed 75% of the nation’s print media.

Now what will the birds poop on?

But who owns the internet?  What right is it of theirs to take it away?  If the US government wanted an internet, they could have made their own, right?  Except that they did.  The big bad government that now wants to come in and regulate things is the entity that funded the creation of Darpanet (Al Gore’s contribution notwithstanding) and it was the US government that cultivated its accessibility across the country.

 And what, precisely, do they want to do?  They want to reserve the right to quickly shut down sites that exist for the sole purpose of sharing pirated movies.  These bittorrents are bleeding Hollywood (and slowing down connections for everybody who still obtain their movies the legal way) and it is utopian to think that it will stop without legislative action.  Keep in mind that the backers of this bill are the MPAA, the Screen Actor’s Guild and others that are seeing their bottom lines drop out because of this blatantly illegal and ubiquitous practice.
I still don't feel sorry for him.

And how, precisely, do they want to do it?  Well, here is where everyone is getting in an uproar.  The government wants to be able to “blacklist” urls.  After running this by a few friends on IT forums, I’m confident that their methods are fairly weak and that the legislation would undoubtedly fall far short of its intended outcome, but the very thought of the government “blacklisting” sites is rubbing people the wrong way.

Now, I freely admit that there are solid reasons to object to this bill and I don’t begrudge anyone their opinion, but fear-mongering is fear-mongering and when I see that, I call it into question.  Not only are the opponents of this bill not proposing any solutions, but they are also blatantly mischaracterizing the nature of the legislation.

For exhibit A, I present the website demand progress and their “COICA Fact Sheet”.  Now this “organization” consists, apparently, of one guy.  Seriously.  If you click on the “the team” tab at the top of the site, it only gives you one name; the aforementioned Aaron Swartz.  So let’s take a look at the facts.
"It's about time!"

It reads like most exaggerated, panicky newsletters with obvious but unstated agendas.  It presents the points in a series of questions that you, the curious reader, are supposed to be asking yourself.

It begins by linking to the actual law with hopes that you won’t bother reading it.  It then proceeds to mischaracterize the nature of the bill to suggest that it will be applied without due process.  He does pay lip service to the fact that the actual banning of a url could only be done by court order, but then ignores that in the next sentence with a vague statement about a second list that will be subject to none but the Attorney General.

Of course, the law does call for this second list of suspected-but-not-quite-yet-investigated sites, but it does not ban them.  It even spells out the need for transparency as to what urls are on that list and a process that a url owner can go through to have their site removed from the list.  Swartz skirts this fact with two sentences:

Internet service providers (everyone from Comcast to PayPal to Google AdSense) would be required to block any domains on the first list. They would also receive immunity (and presumably the government's gratitude) for blocking domains on the second list.

Notice that we’re only a few sentences in and we’re already getting the word ‘presumably’?  He neglects to mention that there is nothing at all in the bill urging isps to ban urls on the second list.  The list that they’re talking about essentially already exists, though they do say that isps can insulate from the possibility of prosecution by restricting access to known piracy sites.  Google forbid…

But so far nothing rises to the level of alarmism.  It takes a one more whole sentence to get there.  The next question that we, the increasingly anxious reader are supposed to ask is “What kind of domains can go on the list?”

Here, Swartz gets slippery:

The list is for domains "dedicated to infringing activity," which is defined very broadly — any site where counterfeit goods or copyrighted material are "central to the activity of the Internet site" would be blocked.

This is an interesting choice of verbiage.  The first part is true all the way up until the word “which”.  At that point he begins blatantly lying and anyone who bothered to read the first few paragraphs of the law will notice.  The law actually defines a domain “dedicated to infringing activity” as a site that is “primarily designed, has no demonstrable, commercially significant purpose or use other than, or is marketed by its operator, or by a person acting in concert with the operator, to offer…” and then goes on to define copyrighted material in legalese.


“Central to the activity of” versus “has no demonstrable… purpose or use other than” are radically different interpretations, really.  Now, to be fair, the words he put in quotes did actually appear in the text of the bill, and in that order.  But only in reference to sites that meet the above criterion.  It’s the equivalent of a movie producer shortening the critics comments from “the cinematography was so bad I found myself missing gripping my stomach and near vomiting” to “…gripping…”

This makes a pretty big difference as to how one would look at the law.  Under Swartz’s definition a site like You-Tube could be blacklisted since trading copyrighted material is possible (and thus, some could argue central) to their site.  Under the actual definition used in the law it is limited to bit torrent sites or other such bastions of piracy.

Next, the hypothetical reader goes on to ask “What’s so bad about that?” and Demand Progress has you in the palm of their fist.  He starts with a few falsehoods born of his flagrantly fabricated definitions and then tosses in this little gem:
The guy arguing accusing others of fascism
shouldn't use a fist in his logo.  I'm just saying...

And even without a court order, sites can get blacklisted just by order of the Attorney General -- and the bill encourages ISPs to block those sites as well. ISPs have plenty of reason to obey a government blacklist even when they're not legally required.

Next he tackles the skeptics in the crowd with the question “Isn’t the word censored a little overheated?”  He dispatched with these concerns with a couple of quick lines about how there is no due process in the bill (there is) and a calm, level-headed sentence that compares this bill to the fascist measures in Iran and China.
We'd get less freedom but cooler dragons.

At this point, he figures he’s really got us going because the next interjection from his meta-reader isn’t even phrased as a question.  It’s an exclamation, complete with exclamation point: “But it’s just limited to copyright!”

Now if you have any illusions that I’m being too hard on this guy, you’ve gotta hear the reply he offers.  It’s such conspiracy theory rhetorical crystal-ball gazing that I’m at a loss even to satirize it:

How long do you think that will last? Once the Attorney General has a system set up for censoring the Internet, everyone who has a problem with a website will want to get in on it. How long before it's expanded to block Wikileaks, pornography, gambling, anarchists, supposed terrorists, and anybody else the Attorney General doesn't like that day?

Keep in mind that this guy is setting himself up here.  This is not a captured conversation on some forum somewhere.  This was the best he could do when he was asking himself the freaking questions.  He seems flustered by his own dialogue device.

So if you want to send me an angry email for calling attention to this nonsense, by all means, do exactly that.  If you want to send me an email debating the merits of this law, by all means do that.  Heck, if you want to rant and rave and misspell curse words at me, that’s fine too.  But out in the real world, we should be having an honest discussion here.

The power to ban urls is not one that we should give the government lightly.  We should have an open discussion about it and I’m glad the senate delayed the vote yesterday.  But while we’re talking about it, can we stick to reality?  Can we talk about genuine possibilities without insinuating that the Attorney General would be using this law to black list the kid who dumped his daughter’s band site?  Can we use the actual language of the bill when quoting the bill?

I don’t care how bad an issue is or how passionate a person fighting against it is, you never make the conversation better with propaganda.  Aaron Swartz is a genius, not a ranting lunatic.  He’s too smart to think that what he’s saying is true but apparently he doesn’t think you are.

That’s all I have to say about COICA… I’ll be back to funny stuff next time.

Aaron Davies


  1. I haven't commented on this issue because I really haven't spent much time on it. I remember seeing something about it at EFF but, again, I skipped through it. There are lots of things to be concerned about with government getting involved in the Internet; I am especially concerned about the recent call to allow surveillance of the Internet by Homeland Security agents. However, it appears that that is not the issue here.
    Thank you for the last two posts. I still don't have a clear position, but I think that I have a clearer understanding of the issues.
    I certainly enjoy your sense of humor but don't feel that you have to limit yourself.

  2. I want to make it as clear as possible that I'm not in favor of the proposed law as much as I am against the propaganda that is polluting the discussion of it. Something needs to be done to stop online piracy and if COICA is not the answer then we need to discuss alternatives, but that can only happen if we are honest and open about the details of the debate. Too many sites are dressing this up as a one-sided issue with freedom standing in defense of a specter of tyranny. I simply hope to get people to look at both sides of the issue.

  3. That's why they call themselves Progressives..Got it? I doubt it.

  4. Thank you. I am definitely an opponent of COICA, but I agree with you completely with regards to the language used by people on the Internet. It's great that people are so adamant about their opinions, especially something concerning politics, but it's not helpful when things are blown out of proportion.