The U.S. government is pretty open in regards to internet freedom, compared to some other governments around the world. It doesn't block YouTube, search results aren't blacked out and Wikipedia is fully accessible. However, five U.S. congressmen and senators would like to drastically change how the internet operates.
Lamar S. Smith
Texas, Representative for the 21st Congressional District
Congressman Smith isn't new to politics. He's been serving in Congress since 1987. This experience didn’t say much when he introduced the controversial SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act) in late 2011. SOPA's aim to fight “online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods” was genuine, but how it got there was very flawed. Its underlying premise called for the monitoring of users’ online activities, and some stipulations favored censorship of websites. Over 100,000 websites protested the bill, including Wikipedia, Google and Craigslist. As a consequence the bill was shelved on January 19th, 2012.
Despite the media attention and online protests from SOPA, Smith continued to focus on controversial internet regulations. He later introduced the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act. This is a great idea, but the bill requires that ISPs retain everyone’s data, including “IP address, credit card details and bank account details for up to a year after you leave their service.”
Lamar’s also attempted to expand the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, despite evidence from Google that more than a third of Takedown notices received were invalid copyright claims. Again, Lamar’s push didn't get very far.
Senator Leahy introduced the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) which was already under fire because it was closely related to SOPA. PIPA gave a vague definition to what it called “rogue sites” that distributed copyrighted material. Vague enough that many legitimate websites would have had an enormous burden on them to make sure that they were in the clear.
As a side note, it is unbelievable how they managed to twist enough words to form the acronym PROTECT IP which stands for Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act. (That's not a joke, somebody probably spent hours on that.)
New York, Assemblyman
Jim Conte must have been a victim of some serious online bullying. Assemblyman Conte proposed legislation in New York that would make it illegal to post anonymous comments on websites. According to him, this would effectively eliminate “mean-spirited and baseless political attacks” and would also “turn the spotlight on cyber bullies by forcing them to reveal their identity.”
Somebody may want to review the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution with Mr. Conte, because freedom of speech does, in fact, include anonymous postings, even if they are “mean spirited.”
Arizona, State Representative
Ted Vogt was a bit of a joke when he sponsored Arizona House Bill 2549. After this bill passed it caused a media frenzy and was very quickly amended. Why? Because it made it illegal (and expensive if convicted):
“….for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use any electronic or digital device and use any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or property of any person.”
Besides this bill violating the constitution, there are many sections that comment on millions of sites ranging from The New York Times to Reddit, half of which might contain at least an instance of what is considered illegal by Bill 2549. The fine for a first offense: up to $2,500.
Michigan, Representative for the 8th Congressional District
Last year, Mr. Rogers introduced the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) which aims to “investigate cyber threats” and “ensure the security of networks against cyberattack.” By investigate, this essentially means monitoring somebody's browsing activity. Unfortunately, there are few restrictions on how, when and to whom they can do these investigations. When pressed to close some of the loose ends, certain parts of the bill were amended. However, the changes didn't do enough. Kendall Burn, the Senior National Security fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology wrote “The authors of CISPA have made some positive changes recently…none of the changes gets to the heart of the privacy concerns that Internet users and advocacy groups have expressed.” The bill has so far passed the House of Representatives and is now awaiting a Senate vote.
The internet is constantly being shaped by outside forces. Some of them are good, but many are, or could be, very bad. We may be tired of “mean-spirited comments” being written anonymously, and it is important to protect copyrighted material; however, these laws would have had (or in the case of CISPA, could still have) enormous negative impacts on how we use the internet. None of these politicians are “bad” people, but they have proposed misguided bills that are truly the biggest threats to open internet that the United States has ever seen. Fortunately, as we've seen from the enormous defeat of SOPA, these bills can be overcome through public and corporate disapproval.