Since the dawn of the Internet era, people have condemned the big American entertainment industry players for failing to meet the challenges of the new age with a spirit of innovation. But that ignores the tremendous amount of creative energies that the RIAA (music) and MPAA (movies) have put into crafting new ways to squash the spread of digital content. They try to sell those inventions to lawmakers, and over the years, a symbiosis has developed where the lobbies lob an extreme, if clever, technological scheme into Congress,. The scheme gets a polite hearing -- Hey, maybe we should think about blowing up people's computers -- but is then either forgotten, or seriously toned down. Now, though, the industry groups might have stumbled upon a winning innovation with a new copyright bill, S. 3804, that has the backing of Sen. Patrick Leahy and 15 of 18 members on the Senate Judiciary Committee. It's being debated there this week.
This one's a real doozy. What makes the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act both a potential hit for the entertainment industry and what makes it terrifying are one and the same: COICA moves the copyright battles down to a level of the Internet that's both critical to its operation and yet, to most of us, largely invisible. The Domain Naming System, or DNS, is why you can type "Google.com" in your web browser instead of having to remember 188.8.131.52 -- the site's actual address on the Internet. Thousands of people, businesses, and governments the world over help to maintain the linked databases that talk to one another to make that translation happen. DNS shouldn't really work, but it does. And by working it makes it possible for the world to collectively maintain a fluid web of digital content.
COICA takes that trust-based global DNS collaboration and drafts it into battle. Under the plan, the U.S. Attorney General would be empowered to order domain name registries like Go Daddy, to pick a high-profile example, to disappear websites from their rolls if they appear on a "blacklist" (to borrow a term from the Demand Progress has sprung up against the scheme) of sites against the Justice Department has decided to take to court. A site like The Pirate Bay, a bazaar of copyright-infringing music, movies, and books, would likely be on there. But it's not impossible to imagine YouTube making such a list as well. COICA gets particularly surreal when you consider that just because the federal government has ordered a website disappeared doesn't mean that it's not still there. In many cases, you'd still be able to get to it by typing that Internet address like Google's 184.108.40.206. So we'd be left with a situation where American citizens are figuring out ways to circumvent their government's half-baked restrictions on what they can see on the Internet. That sort of thing isn't unknown in other places, of course. But it's not something we're used to seeing in this, the land that invented the Internet.
-- Nancy Scola