The weakening links

Technology Review, Feb. 1, 2003
http://infobrix.yellowbrix.com/

Internet censorship isn’t just for China anymore. A pair of misguided U.S. laws are prompting search engines to slash links for fear of incurring copyright and even criminal liability.

The Western world was rightly concerned last year when China blocked its citizens access to Google, the Internet’s ubiquitous search engine. In addition to raising a hue and cry in the United States, a bevy of “hacktivists” scrambled to set up mirrored Google sites to thwart China’s effort. Now China no longer blocks Google outright: it’s just more selective in its censorship. If, in China, you type in “Falun Gong,” the name of a dissident Chinese religious group, your Google search yields virtually no links. Most of us would agree this is a misguided effort by the Chinese government to suppress information, right?

But something similar is afoot in the United States. An accelerating trend to remove Internet links is being driven by two well-meaning but misguided pieces of legislation. The first, known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, says any Internet service provider can be sued and even shut down for linking to a site known to violate US. copyright laws. And the second, the recent legislation popularly known as the USA Patriot Act, makes it a crime to aid or abet terrorist organizations. Both laws are putting new pressures on the U.S. commitment to free speech.

Take the recent fracas at the University of California, San Diego. Last fall, the university’s administration tried to force a student group to delete from its Web page a link to the Web site of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a violent Marxist insurgency. University officials claimed that the link violated the USA Patriot Act by providing “material support or resources” to a group that has been placed on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Doesn’t the drive to remove links-even to potentially unpleasant information-smack of the tactic we revile when practiced by the Chinese government?

The First Amendment is still sufficiently robust to have convinced university officials to back off from the hyperlink brouhaha-at least for the moment. I’m sure we will see other efforts to delete hyperlinks to “terrorist” information. In the meantime, I’m even more worried about the insidious censorship resulting from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Consider, for instance, another Google-related censorship story. Last spring, Google removed links to Web pages critical of the Church of Scientology. Why? Because the creepy organization sent Google a letter of complaint, citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and claiming that Google was offering links to Web pages that infringed the Scientologists’ copyrighted material. The Scientologists asserted that the search engine must either remove the links or face a court-ordered shutdown.

In letters to Google, the Church of Scientology alleges that its critics violate the law when they excerpt copyrighted and trademarked church documents and post them on Web sites. The critics say that the excerpts are essential to expose the dishonesty of the Church of Scientology. But the government’s provisions in favor of copyright holders-in this case the Church of Scientology-have helped censor the critics by prompting search engines to sever links to the critics’ sites. (For news about similar cases, visit chilingeffects.org, sponsored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.)

After some hand wringing, Google found a way to continue to reference xenu.net, the anti-Scientology site: the company determined that a link solely to the group’s home page is allowed under the law because the home page itself doesn’t contain any instances of copyright infringement. (Google says the initial “delinking” of the home page was inadvertent.)

Some free-speech advocates cheered Google’s refusal to knuckle under. But Google’s government-mandated censorship continues. If you go to Google and type, “site:xenu.net leaflet,” you’ll see a note at the bottom of the page explaining that links to 10 Web pages have been removed. Is it just me, or does a state-sanctioned drive to suppress Google links about a religious group sound like the case of China and the Falun Gong?

Perhaps the harshest of all the provisions of the copyright law are those that make it illegal to publish any information that might be used to circumvent anticopying technology embedded in software, CDs, DVDs, and any other medium. The situation has gotten so bad that when the software firm Red Hat published a patch to fix an error in its latest version of the Linux operating system, it declined to offer documentation to its U.S. users. Instead, it posted the technical literature on a European site-thefreeworld.net- that specifically prohibits U.S. citizens from accessing the documentation and warns that U.S. users could face jail time and heavy fines.

To combat some of the worst excesses of the law, U.S. Representative Rick Boucher (D-Virginia) is introducing legislation that adds badly needed fair-use provisions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. His proposed Digital Media Consumers’ Rights Act would restore the legal right to publish copyrighted information— even about those evil “circumventing technologies”-as long as the information is explicitly for “scientific research into technological protection measures.’

This legislation deserves support. With a heritage that includes such rabble-rousing pamphleteers as Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams, the United States has long championed freedom of speech. We ought not let our commitment falter on the journey into cyberspace. Otherwise, the most perilous link will be the glaring one between the United States and nations such as China that have no free- speech tradition at all.

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