PROTECT IP: the Right Thing to Do

This is a Fringe Alert:  The same groups who opposed granting legal tools to the fight against terrorists that were already in use to fight the mafia and drug traffickers are now opposing legal tools for fighting theft of American property by foreign sites – tools the government already has to deal with domestic IP thieves.

The full U.S. Senate will soon begin to debate the “PROTECT IP Act.”  PROTECT IP passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously back in May.  Conservatives who defend the rule of law should not be fooled by the histrionics coming from both extremes of the political spectrum who breathlessly shout, “Censorship!”  Seriously, does anyone really think that denying access to stolen goods is censorship?  Or that Internet thieves should be able to steal American IP just because they move offshore to escape our laws that protect our people?

In this digital age, are we simply to accept the premise that we must allow tech-savvy criminals to steal thousands of American jobs while they make millions?   As a conservative who defended the government’s legal tools in the fight against terrorism and who has represented the creative industries for years defending intellectual property I do not accept the false choices posed by the fringe in either case.  Then, the fringe left and right presented a false choice between liberty and security. Now, the same fringe groups present a false choice between Internet freedom and censorship.  We should reject their fear mongering and look at the facts.

At issue in the bill is the so-called DNS (domain name system) blocking provision. DNS blocking simply refers to the process in which a U.S. Federal court would block access to the U.S. market of an offshore domain name that is committing criminal acts under U.S. law. The Attorney General – and only the Attorney General – can go to court to ask that the illegal website be blocked. That’s right, a federal judge would have to agree that the website, according to the bill’s explicit definition, “has no significant use other than theft or is primarily operated and used for theft.” That sounds reasonable enough and can hardly be interpreted to in any way affect legitimate sites.  The bill has no blacklist.  Just the same due process by Federal courts that is afforded to domestic sites applied to prevent foreign actors from peddling stolen American goods back into the U.S. market.  Scandalous…

The government already has DNS blocking in its domestic legal toolbox to protect against malware and spam.  Several other developed countries already implement DNS blocking of illegal sites to protect their own citizens’ intellectual property – including France, Denmark, Italy and the U.K.  The Internet has not been “broken” since these measures were implemented.

What we are talking about here is giving the government the ability to block a fake online pharmacy outside the U.S. from illegally selling counterfeit drugs to U.S. customers; or to a foreign-based website that makes huge profits by engaging in massive online theft of American software, hard goods, music, movies, and video games.    The U.S. government already has the authority to seize domain names of domestic sites that commit these crimes.  Why should America be powerless when these sites skip off to the Ukraine to do it?

I’m not saying that there are no legitimate concerns and that we shouldn’t make sure that we carefully consider all of the pros and cons when we the people, through our elected representatives, grant new or updated authorities to law enforcement, even when we go after foreign sites.  But let’s stay in the realm of facts and reality.

First, the Internet is not at risk of being censored.  PROTECT IP includes careful precautions not to restrict the flow of legitimate traffic to lawful websites that offer legitimate products.  But without robust protections that match technological advances making online theft easy, our economy and competitiveness will suffer.  And theft should not be allowed.  Period.

So let’s all take a deep breath and stop making outlandish claims about censorship and the end of freedom on the Internet.  That’s just cheap spin.  Instead, let’s consider this reality:  Online theft of intellectual property is having devastating effects on the industries that provide millions of Americans with a living. They deserve to fight back against foreign sites that couldn’t get away with what they are doing here in the U.S.    PROTECT IP protects them, their property and their ability to earn a living.  That’s worth protecting.