Intermediary Deputization & Section 230

Last November, I penned an essay on these pages about the COICA legislation that had recently been approved unanimously by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. While I praised Congress’s efforts to tackle the problem of “rogue websites” — sites dedicated to trafficking in counterfeit goods and/or distributing copyright infringing content — I warned that the bill lacked crucial safeguards to protect free speech and due process, as several dozen law professors had also cautioned. Thus, I suggested several changes to the legislation that would have limited its scope to truly bad actors while reducing the probability of burdening protected expression through “false positives.” Thanks in part to the efforts of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), COICA never made it a floor vote last session.

Today, three U.S. Senators introduced a similar bill, entitled the PROTECT IP Act (bill text), which, like COICA, establishes new mechanisms for combating Internet sites that are “dedicated to infringing activities.” I’m glad to see that lawmakers adopted several of my suggestions, making the PROTECT IP Act a major improvement over its predecessor. While the new bill still contains some potentially serious problems, on net, it represents a more balanced approach to fighting online copyright and trademark infringement while recognizing fundamental civil liberties.

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POLITICO reports that a bill aimed at combating so-called “rogue websites” will soon be introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Patrick Leahy. The legislation, entitled the PROTECT IP Act, will substantially resemble COICA (PDF), a bill that was reported unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee late last year but did not reach a floor vote. As more details about the new bill emerge, we’ll likely have much more to say about it here on TLF.

I discussed my concerns about and suggested changes to the COICA legislation here last November; the PROTECT IP Act reportedly contains several new provisions aimed at mitigating concerns about the statute’s breadth and procedural protections. However, as Mike Masnick points out on Techdirt, the new bill — unlike COICA — contains a private right of action, although that right may not permit rights holders to disable infringing domain names. Also unlike COICA, the PROTECT IP Act would apparently require search engines to cease linking to domain names that a court has deemed to be “dedicated to infringing activities.”

For a more in-depth look at this contentious and complex issue, check out the panel discussion that the Competitive Enterprise Institute and TechFreedom hosted last month. Our April 7 event explored the need for, and concerns about, legislative proposals to combat websites that facilitate and engage in unlawful counterfeiting and copyright infringement. The event was moderated by Juliana Gruenwald of National Journal. The panelists included me, Danny McPherson of VeriSign, Tom Sydnor of the Association for Competitive Technology, Dan Castro of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, David Sohn of the Center for Democracy & Technology, and Larry Downes of TechFreedom.

CEI-TechFreedom Event: What Should Lawmakers Do About Rogue Websites? from CEI Video on Vimeo.

A federal judge in Illinois has refused to allow a plaintiff to match IP addresses to individual names in a piracy case, indicating that use of IP addresses without any other evidence is too unreliable in identifying actual perpetrators, and as such, violates the rights of those caught in what he termed a “fishing expedition.”

In his decision, Judge Harold Baker pointed to one of several recent cases where paramilitary-type police raids on the residences of persons suspected of downloading child pornography that turned up nothing. What had happened was that real culprit had used that household’s unsecured wireless Internet connection.

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User-driven websites — also known as online intermediaries — frequently come under fire for disabling user content due to bogus or illegitimate takedown notices. Facebook is at the center of the latest controversy involving a bogus takedown notice. On Thursday morning, the social networking site disabled Ars Technica’s page after receiving a DMCA takedown notice alleging the page contained copyright infringing material. While details about the claim remain unclear, given that Facebook restored Ars’s page yesterday evening, it’s a safe bet that the takedown notice was without merit.

Understandably, Ars Technica wasn’t exactly pleased that its Facebook page — one of its top sources of incoming traffic — was shut down for seemingly no good reason. Ars was particularly disappointed by how Facebook handled the situation. In an article posted yesterday (and updated throughout the day), Ars co-founder Ken Fisher and senior editor Jacqui Cheng chronicled their struggle in getting Facebook to simply discuss the situation with them and allow Ars to respond to the takedown notice.

Facebook took hours to respond to Ars’s initial inquiry, and didn’t provide a copy of takedown notice until the following day. Several other major tech websites, including ReadWriteWeb and TheNextWeb, also covered the issue, noting that Ars Technica is the latest in a series of websites to have suffered from their Facebook page being wrongly disabled. In a follow-up article posted today, Ars elaborated on what happened and offered some tips to Facebook on how it could have better handled the situation.

It’s totally fair to criticize how Facebook deals with content takedown requests. Ars is right that the company could certainly do a much better job of handling the process, and Facebook will hopefully re-evaluate its procedures in light of this widely publicized snafu. In calling out Facebook’s flawed approach to dealing with takedown requests, however, Ars Technica doesn’t do justice to the larger, more fundamental problem of bogus takedown notices.

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When it comes to information control, everybody has a pet issue and everyone will be disappointed when law can’t resolve it. I was reminded of this truism while reading a provocative blog post yesterday by computer scientist Ben Adida entitled “(Your) Information Wants to be Free.” Adida’s essay touches upon an issue I have been writing about here a lot lately: the complexity of information control — especially in the context of individual privacy. [See my essays on "Privacy as an Information Control Regime: The Challenges Ahead," "And so the IP & Porn Wars Give Way to the Privacy & Cybersecurity Wars," and this recent FTC filing.]

In his essay, Adida observes that:

In 1984, Stewart Brand famously said that information wants to be free. John Perry Barlow reiterated it in the early 90s, and added “Information Replicates into the Cracks of Possibility.” When this idea was applied to online music sharing, it was cool in a “fight the man!” kind of way. Unfortunately, information replication doesn’t discriminate: your personal data, credit cards and medical problems alike, also want to be free. Keeping it secret is really, really hard.

Quite right. We’ve been debating the complexities of information control in the Internet policy arena for the last 20 years and I think we can all now safely conclude that information control is hugely challenging regardless of the sort of information in question. As I’ll note below, that doesn’t mean control is impossible, but the relative difficulty of slowing or stopping information flows of all varieties has increased exponentially in recent years.

But Adida’s more interesting point is the one about the selective morality at play in debates over information control. That is, people generally expect or favor information freedom in some arenas, but then get pretty upset when they can’t crack down on information flows elsewhere. Indeed, some people can get downright religious about the whole “information-wants-to-be-free” thing in some cases and then, without missing a beat, turn around and talk like information totalitarians in the next breath. Continue reading →

Here is [a chart](http://bitcoincharts.com/charts/mtgoxUSD#rg180ztgCzm1g10zm2g25) of the Bitcoin-dollar exchange rate for the past six months. The arrow notes the date [my column on the virtual currency](http://techland.time.com/2011/04/16/online-cash-bitcoin-could-challenge-governments/) was published in TIME.com. The day after that piece was published, the Bitcoin exchange rate [reached an all time high at $1.19](http://www.bitcoinnews.com/post/4703632837/daily-2011-04-17). Yesterday, just over a week later, [it was pushing $2](http://www.bitcoinnews.com/post/4897524633/daily2011-04-24).

A wiser fella than myself once said, correlation is not causation, and no doubt my article was just a contributing factor in Bitcoin’s recent run-up. It’s simply getting increasingly mainstream attention, and with that more speculators and speculation about mainstream adoption. The chart above lends a lot of credence to Tim Lee’s [bubble critique](http://timothyblee.com/2011/04/18/the-bitcoin-bubble/), so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t giving that argument short shrift.

There may well be a Bitcoin bubble, and it may even be likely. But again, I think that misses the greater point about what Bitcoin represents. Bitcoin may be tulips and the bubble may burst, but the innovation—distributed, anonymous payments—is here to stay. Napster went bust, but its innovation presaged BitTorrent, which is here to stay. Could the Bitcoin project itself go bust? Certainly, but the innovation solving the double-spending problem I’ve been talking about, will be taken up and improved by others, just as other picked up and ran with Napster’s innovation.

I want to start thinking through the practical and legal implications of that innovation. If you don’t think the innovation could ever allow for a useful store of value, then mine is a fool’s errand. I guess I’m betting on the success of a censorship resistant currency.

I’m gratified that my recent writing on the Bitcoin virtual currency project has stirred much conversation and I thought I’d take a moment to continue that conversation.

Tim Lee has written two posts critiquing the viability of Bitcoin from the supply and demand side. Dan Rothschild has responded in part. Tyler Cower also weighed in.

To address Tim I’ll simply say this: Do I think Bitcoin will replace the dollar? No. Might Bitcoin have certain systemic design flaws that might impede its success? Quite possibly. Will Bitcoin become the de facto, manipulation-proof currency of the internet? Who knows. Tim’s posts are a somewhat technical critique of Bitcoin’s long-term feasibility. It’s a great contribution, but since I’m neither a gold bug nor a Bitcoin booster per se, I don’t find it especially interesting.

That all said, what I do think is revolutionary about Bitcoin is that its developers have solved, without the use of a middleman, the double-spending problem faced by virtual currencies. That gives us license to realistically imagine a world without regulable financial intermediaries online.

While Tim overlooks what makes Bitcoin radical, Tom Sydnor groks it viscerally. Writing in a lengthy comment on my post, Tom expresses dismay at what Bitcoin represents and offers what I would, with apologies, characterize as the cyber-conservative response. Continue reading →

Yesterday the FBI effectively [shut down](http://thehill.com/blogs/hillicon-valley/technology/156429-fbi-shuts-down-online-poker-sites) three of the largest gambling sites online and indicted their executives. From a tech policy perspective, these events highlight how central intermediary control is to the regulation of the internet.

Department of Justice lawyers were able to take down the sites using the same tools we’ve [seen DHS use](http://techland.time.com/2011/02/17/operation-protect-our-children-accidentally-shutters-84000-sites/) against alleged pirate and child porn sites: they seize the domain names. Because the sites are hosted overseas (where online gambling is legal), the feds can’t physically shut down the servers, so they do the next best thing. They get a seizure warrant for the domain names that point to the servers and [force the domain name registrars](http://pokerati.com/2011/04/15/poker-panic-11-update-on-domain-name-seizures/) to point them instead to a government IP address, such as [50.17.223.71](http://50.17.223.71). The most popular TLDs, including .com, .net, .org, and .info, have registrars that are American companies within U.S. jurisdiction.

Another intermediary point of control for the federal government are payment processors. The indictments revealed yesterday relate to violations of the [Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act](http://www.firstamendment.com/site-articles/UIEGA/), which makes it illegal for banks and processors like Visa, MasterCard and PayPal to let consenting adults use their money to gamble online. According to the DOJ, in order to let them bet, the poker sites “arranged for the money received from U.S. gamblers to be disguised as payments to hundreds of non-existent online merchants purporting to sell merchandise such as jewelry and golf balls.” ([PDF](http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/threatlevel/2011/04/scheinbergetalindictmentpr.pdf))

Now, imagine if there were no intermediaries.

[In my TIME.com Techland column today, I write about Bitcoin](http://techland.time.com/2011/04/16/online-cash-bitcoin-could-challenge-governments/), a completely decentralized and anonymous virtual currency that I think will be revolutionary.

>Because Bitcoin is an open-source project, and because the database exists only in the distributed peer-to-peer network created by its users, there is no Bitcoin company to raid, subpoena or shut down. Even if the Bitcoin.org site were taken offline and the Sourceforge project removed, the currency would be unaffected. Like BitTorrent, taking down any of the individual computers that make up the peer-to-peer system would have little effect on the rest of the network. And because the currency is truly anonymous, there are no identities to trace.

And if a P2P currency can make it so that there is no fiscal intermediary to regulate, how about a distributed DNS system so that there are no registrars to coerce? This is something Peter Sunde of Pirate Bay fame [has been working on](http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2010-12/02/peter-sunde-p2p-dns). These ideas may sound radical and far-fetched, but if we truly want to see an online regime of “[denationalized liberalism](http://techliberation.com/2010/11/28/mueller%E2%80%99s-networks-and-states-classical-liberalism-for-the-information-age/),” as Milton Mueller puts it, then getting rid of the intermediaries in the net’s infrastructure might be the best path forward.

Again, check out [my piece in TIME](http://techland.time.com/2011/04/16/online-cash-bitcoin-could-challenge-governments/) for a thorough explanation of Bitcoin and its implications. I plan to be writing about it a lot more and devote some of my research time to it.

In the ongoing copyright debates, areas of common ground are seemingly few and far between. It’s easy to forget that not all approaches to combating copyright infringement are mired in controversy. One belief that unites many stakeholders across the spectrum is that more efforts are needed to educate Internet users about copyright. The Internet has spawned legions of amateur content creators, but not all of the content that’s being created is original. Indeed, a great deal of online copyright infringement owes to widespread ignorance of copyright law and its penalties.

For its part, Google yesterday unveiled “Copyright School” for YouTube users. As Justin Green explains on the official YouTube blog, users whose accounts have been suspended for allegedly uploading infringing content will be required to watch this video and then correctly answer questions about it before their account will be reinstated:

Of course, boiling down the basics of copyright into a four and a half minute video is not an easy task, to put it mildly. (The authoritative treatment of copyright law, Nimmer on Copyright, fills an 11-volume treatise.) Copyright geeks and fans of “remix culture” will appreciate that Google’s video touches on fair use and includes links to in-depth resources for users to learn more about copyright. It will be interesting to see how Google’s effort influences the behavior of YouTube users and the incidence of repeat infringement.

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The Competitive Enterprise Institute and TechFreedom are hosting a panel discussion this Thursday featuring intellectual property scholars and Internet governance experts. The event will explore the need for, and concerns about, recent legislative proposals to give law enforcement new tools to combat so-called “rogue websites” that facilitate and engage in unlawful counterfeiting and copyright infringement.

Video of the event will be posted here on TechLiberation.com.

What: “What Should Lawmakers Do About Rogue Websites?” — A CEI/TechFreedom event
When: Thursday, April 7 (12:00 – 2:00 p.m.)
Where: The National Press Club (529 14th Street NW, Washington D.C.)
Who: Juliana Gruenwald, National Journal (moderator)

Daniel Castro, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation

Larry Downes, TechFreedom

Danny McPherson, VeriSign

Ryan Radia, Competitive Enterprise Institute

David Sohn, Center for Democracy & Technology

Thomas Sydnor, Association for Competitive Technology

 

Space is very limited. To guarantee a seat, please register for the event by emailing nciandella@cei.org.

  • Juliana Gruenwald, National Journal (moderator)
  • Daniel Castro, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation
  • Larry Downes, TechFreedom
  • Danny McPherson, VeriSign
  • Ryan Radia, Competitive Enterprise Institute
  • David Sohn, Center for Democracy & Technology
  • Thomas Sydnor, Association for Competitive Technology