Wednesday, July 23, 2008

COPA, FISA/FAA and ACTA - The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

There's lots of dangerous acronyms out there, but the above three warrant the attention of every freedom-loving American.

COPA is the Child Online Protection Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1998. COPA would have required websites that display or sell material deemed "harmful to minors" to restrict access to their sites. The intended target of the act was Internet pornography.

While seemingly well-intentioned (like the asphalt on the road to Hell), the overly broad definition of what is "harmful to minors" would have helped to chill the dissemination of many forms of constitutionally protected speech, and stifled the effective flow of information that makes the Internet what it is today.

The ACLU saw the potential threat to freedom and sued immediately after COPA was signed into law. A federal judge sided with the ACLU and leveled an injunction against the law's implementation until the ACLU's legal challenge could be heard.

The law has been batted around the courts for the last 10 years, and today a federal appeals court ruled (once again) that the law is unconstitutional.
To quote the Wired Threat Level story:
Both courts also found that the standards for material that had to be hidden from open browsing were so loosely defined that any content not suitable for a four-year-old would have been hidden behind a age-verification firewall.
The Department of Justice still has the option of another appeal to the Supreme Court, but it's hoped that they will stop beating the dead horse that COPA is and realize that its' demise is a good thing, and that it's time to move on.

Many are familiar with the recent re-authorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) through another law called the FISA Amendments Act (FAA). This is the law that grants additional powers for surveillance, without having to provide certain key information to the special court that was established to hear motions for warrants under the original FISA. To quote the ACLU's press release announcing their lawsuit, filed the day President Bush signed the bill last week:

"In today's legal challenge, the ACLU argues that the new spying law violates Americans' rights to free speech and privacy under the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution. The new law permits the government to conduct intrusive surveillance without ever telling a court who it intends to spy on, what phone lines and email addresses it intends to monitor, where its surveillance targets are located, why it's conducting the surveillance or whether it suspects any party to the communication of wrongdoing."

Another controversial amendment attached to the bill granted immunity to Telecommunications companies that assisted the Bush administration in warrantless surveillance activities that were challenged in court and ruled to be unconstitutional.

Many Democratic members of Congress opposed this amendment, but still voted for the bill when they did not have the votes to remove it. This includes Barack Obama, who while mounting an eloquent defense of his rationale (Hillary voted against the bill) is still taking a beating over his vote and stance. John McCain didn't show up to vote.

FISA/FAA is bad. The ACLU has a very comprehensive page on their efforts to keep it from becoming law.
It's definitely worth checking out.

At least there are several information sources on this egregious attempt at subjugating our wholesale civil liberties to purportedly gain advantage over a vague threat of terrorism. A new treaty
currently being negotiated in secret has had very little reporting in the USA outside of advocacy groups and techie blogs.

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), according to Wikipedia...
"...would establish an international coalition against copyright infringement, imposing strong, top-down enforcement of copyright laws in developed nations. The proposed agreement would allow border officials to search laptops, MP3 players, and cellular phones for copyright-infringing content. It would also impose new cooperation requirements upon Internet service providers (ISPs), including perfunctory disclosure of customer information, and restrict the use of online privacy tools."
Even more alarming is that up until an overview of the proposed agreement was leaked out, participating countries would disclose very little information about what was being discussed.

Even if you don't participate in file-sharing (I don't), this attempt to slide a significant impediment upon the free exchange of information and ideas, as well as some pretty serious infringements on the private content of your personal computer or music player, is a little hard to stand.

The American Mainstream Media have for the most part ignored ACTA. I'm sure that this has nothing to do with the major news networks being owned by large conglomerates (GE, Viacom, Disney, News Corp) that have significant investments in other forms of media and entertainment. Perhaps their collective silence on ACTA is becoming one of the best arguments against further consolidation of media ownership in this country.

Thankfully, independent advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge and tech sites like Slashdot have been getting the word out on this 'quiet little agreement' between nations. The EFF also has an action page to e-mail your senator about what's going on and how you feel about it.

ACTA is ugly. It was created and is being negotiated in a way that resists transparency in discourse, debate, and democratic processes. It is being implemented in a way that will bypass the scrutiny of the elected representatives of the people in the form of Congress. If it can't stand the light of day, then it shouldn't exist as part of the codification of laws governing democratic societies.

Now you should be up to speed on all of the recent government efforts to take away a little more of your liberty day by day. They hope that, like the frog who sits plaintively in a pot of water as the heat is gradually turned up, we won't notice until we're boiling.

With that in mind, enjoy the rest of your summer.

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