Do Government Policies and Laws Hinder Tech Advances?

U.S. Protect IP Act

The Issue

A bill now making its way through Congress would give the federal government broad powers to disrupt websites deemed to be dedicated to copyright infringement activities--such as filesharing indexes and pirate streaming sites. The Protect IP Act would empower the government to order search engines to remove infringing sites from search indexes. Domain Name System providers would have to do something similar; and as a result, if you typed in the name of a site (such as ThePirateBay.org), you would never actually reach it. ISPs would also be required to block U.S. users' access to blacklisted sites.

The Controversy

The Electronic Frontier Foundation believes that the bill amounts to government censorship over the Internet. Proponents of the bill, including the entertainment industry, believe that it offers is an important way to protect the rights of content creators by making it harder for people to participate in online piracy.

The Result

The bill is controversial inside Congress as well as outside. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) recently placed a hold on the bill, saying that the bill threatened free speech. And the EFF is encouraging people to voice their objections to the bill in messages to their representatives in Congress. Despite the objections of critics, however, Congressional sources say that the Protect IP Act has broad bipartisan and industry support.

California Social Networking Act

The Issue

Social Networks
Social Networks
The California legislature is considering a bill called the Online Privacy Act that would require all social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to have as their default setting keeping user data private. Social networks would be unable to display your data without your explicit consent, and parents would have greater power over their children's profiles.

The Controversy

The bill covers only California residents, but it would effectively force social networks to extend the new rule to all users to ensure that it covers all California citizens. A coalition of social networking companies and trade groups--including Facebook, Google, the Internet Alliance, Skype, Twitter, Yahoo, and Zynga--opposes the bill. According to the coalition, the bill would violate free-speech rights and damage California's Internet commerce industry.

The Result

The fight goes on to stop the bill, but the proposed law has already made it through its third reading on the floor of the California Senate.

France: Three Strikes and You're Le Out

The Issue

Three Strikes and You're Out!
Three Strikes and You're Out!
Since 2009, French citizens have been subject to a three-strikes law that terminates a user's Internet access for up to one year if others submit three copyright infringement claims against the person. In addition, the accused person's name goes onto an ISP blacklist designed to make getting service through another ISP impossible.

The Controversy

The United Nations recently condemned Internet three-strikes laws, arguing that the laws violate international treaties on human rights to which countries including France and the United States are signatories.

The Result

Despite the French government's best efforts, implementing the three-strikes law is not going smoothly. In May, the French agency in charge of enforcing the law had to suspend its work temporarily after a data breach exposed the IP addresses of people being monitored for violations.

Copyright Copyfight

The Issue

Copyright infringement lawsuits can be very lucrative for law firms, and one group of attorneys leading the way is the U.S. Copyright Group. The USCG solicits movie studios to retain it to go after individual file sharers. Individuals suspected of violating copyright for a specific movie may be subject to damage claims of up to $150,000.

The Controversy

The USCG may believe that it offers a valuable service to movie studios harmed by illegal file sharing. But digital rights groups such as the EFF say that the government should eliminate grossly excessive compensation for claimed damages. "When a defendant faces the potential--no matter how remote--of realizing damages as high as $150,000 based on one single alleged infringement, she is unlikely to fight the case against her, regardless of how meritorious her defense is," EFF staff attorney Julie Samuels told PCWorld.

The Result

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., recently revoked more than 23,000 subpoenas obtained by the USCG, according to Ars Technica. The subpoenas would have allowed the USCG to discover the real names of users hiding behind anonymous IP addresses and then sue them for illegal file sharing. The USCG has until June 21 to show sufficient legal cause why the case should proceed.

Municipal Broadband Roadblocks

The Issue

North Carolina recently passed a law that makes it harder for municipalities to create their own broadband networks. The bill prevents municipal broadband networks from pricing services below cost, and it artificially handicaps the networks with the same financial constraints that private companies face when deploying broadband.

The new laws hurt communities that may want to follow in the footsteps of the Wilson, North Carolina, municipal broadband company, Greenlight. Wilson built its own municipal broadband network after private broadband companies serving the area declined to upgrade their services. Internet service provider companies have been lobbying for North Carolina to enact the new law since 2007.

The Controversy

FCC Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn has called North Carolina's policy a "significant barrier to broadband deployment" and says that it "may impede local efforts to promote economic development." Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig called the new law "terrible public policy."

The Result

Governor Bev Perdue allowed the bill to become law without either signing it or moving to veto it. In a statement, Perdue called on North Carolina legislators to "revisit this issue and adopt rules that not only promote fairness but also allow for the greatest number of high quality and affordable broadband options for consumers."

The United Kingdom: You Don't Talk About Super Injunction Club

The Issue

Under U.K. law, celebrities--and other powerful people--can block the press from talking about their personal lives by filing what's called a super injunction. The law may stop newspapers from dishing dirt, but preventing Twitter users from blabbing online about the dirty deeds that their favorite British celebs are up to is almost impossible.

The Controversy

In May, a celebrity referred to as "CTB" sued Twitter and at least one Twitter user who talked about his extramarital affair online in violation of a U.K. super injunction. "CTB" was later outed as Manchester United soccer star Ryan Giggs, according to The Telegraph.

The Result

Britain's outdated law demonstrates the futility of trying to keep embarrassing information off the Internet. British Prime Minister David Cameron said in late May that his government would look at the super injunction law, calling it "unsustainable," according to The Telegraph.

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