Threats of Censorship Loom with New Internet Copyright Infringement Bill

The “Great Firewall” is something most Americans only associate with Chinese Internet regulation, but they may be able to add their own country to that list soon.

On September 20, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch introduced the S. 3804 bill to Congress. Named the “Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act” (COICA), the bill would allow the federal government to censor the Internet on the basis of copyright infringement and intellectual property rights.

The act calls for the creation of two lists: the first list is compiled by the Department of Justice, and the second is under the discretion of the U.S. Attorney General. As regulated by the federal government, the websites on the first list must be blocked by all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Domain Name Server (DNS) operators in the United States. The bill does not mandate that websites on the second list be blocked, but it suggests that internet providers and registries would gain more favor with the federal government if they were to comply with not just the first list but the second as well.

Wide-scale, negative responses have already formed on the Internet in the last two weeks since the bill was first made public. Social commentators and policymakers alike have already deemed the bill the equivalent “blacklisting” and censoring the Internet. Last week, Rhode Island State Representative David Segal only laid out the basic schematics of the bill on his blog in The Huffington Post, explaining the impact of the situation with a media battle analogy. If Viacom were to take YouTube to court under COICA, the media company would be able to blacklist the video sharing site as long as it has sufficient grounds indicating that people use YouTube for copyright infringement. He sums the situation up with a chilling critique: “The lists are for sites ‘dedicated to infringing activity,’ but that's defined very broadly—any domain name where counterfeit goods or copyrighted material are ‘central to the activity of the Internet site’ could be blocked.”

Dan Gillmor, the director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, also warned of censorship’s further implications. “[D]on't think the censorship will stop at these kinds of sites. Censorship is seductive, once it's in place. It'll expand relentlessly,” he wrote. Furthermore, an online petition is now circulating on, which explicitly states, “Censoring the Internet is something we'd expect from China or Iran, not the U.S. Senate.”

Among the bills’ supporters are the two largest Hollywood entertainment organizations, Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The Internet’s proliferation over the past decade has meant deteriorating sales for both film studios and record companies. This bill would allow both industries to combat piracy more effectively as well as to deter further declines to their commercial prospects.