Today, you can’t get to The Oatmeal, or Dinosaur Comics, or XKCD, or (less importantly) Wikipedia. The sites have gone dark to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act, America’s attempt to censor the Internet to reduce copyright infringement. This is part of a remarkable, distributed, coordinated protest effort, both online and in realspace (I saw my colleague and friend Jonathan Askin headed to protest outside the offices of Senators Charles Schumer and Kirstin Gillibrand). Many of the protesters argue that America is headed in the direction of authoritarian states such as China, Iran, and Bahrain in censoring the Net. The problem, though, is that America is not alone: most Western democracies are censoring the Internet. Britain does it for child pornography. France: hate speech. The EU is debating a proposal to allow “flagging” of objectionable content for ISPs to ban. Australia’s ISPs are engaging in pre-emptive censorship to prevent even worse legislation from passing. India wants Facebook, Google, and other online platforms to remove any content the government finds problematic.
Censorship is on the march, in democracies as well as dictatorships. With this movement we see, finally, the death of the American myth of free speech exceptionalism. We have viewed ourselves as qualitatively different – as defenders of unfettered expression. We are not. Even without SOPA and PROTECT IP, we are seizing domain names, filtering municipal wi-fi, and using funding to leverage colleges and universities to filter P2P. The reasons for American Internet censorship differ from those of France, South Korea, or China. The mechanism of restriction does not. It is time for us to be honest: America, too, censors. I think we can, and should, defend the legitimacy of our restrictions – the fight on-line and in Congress and in the media shows how we differ from China – but we need to stop pretending there is an easy line to be drawn between blocking human rights sites and blocking Rojadirecta or Dajaz1.
Cross-posted at Info/Law.