US government throwing free speech under the bus

What do these three, apparently unrelated stories, have in common? American attorneys general pressured Craigslist to block ads for adult services. The US is trying to extend draconian copyright protections worldwide. And politicians and corporate journalists are banding together to exclude Wikileaks from a proposed federal shield law protecting journalists. These actions are part of a trend limiting free speech to those with government and corporate protection, not the common people like thee and me.

Craigslist, facing renewed criticism over its Adult Services category of classified ads, put a black CENSORED bar over the link to the section this week, and blocked users from reading it.

The latest leaked draft of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) shows the US attempting to export its restrictive copyright rules worldwide, writes Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow:

Particularly disturbing is the growing support for "three-strikes" copyright rules that would disconnect whole families from the Internet if one member of the household was accused (without proof) of copyright infringement. The other big US agenda item is cramming pro-Digital Rights Management (DRM) rules down the world's throats that go way beyond the current obligations under the UN's WIPO Copyright Treaty. In the US version, breaking DRM is always illegal, even if you're not committing any copyright violation -- so breaking the DRM on your iPad to install software you bought from someone who hasn't gone through the Apple approval process is illegal, even though the transaction involves no illicit copying.

Ironically, the latest ACTA draft comes soon after the US Copyright office and Library of Congress came out in favor of the right to jailbreak.

Also, the U.S. Congress is working to craft a shield law that would allow journalists to protect confidential sources. An admirable protection of free speech -- except it doesn't apply to Wikileaks, as Senators Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein are working on a special amendment that says the law wouldn't apply to "websites that serve as a conduit for the mass dissemination of secret documents." And the news industry is going along with the gag; newspaper journalists support the restriction, according to Techdirt.

Best intentions

These laws are well-intended. I mean, who isn't against sex slavery, theft, and leaking national security secrets? But these actions are already illegal. And the new laws would have harmful side-effects of restricting freedom.

Researcher danah boyd describes how Craigslist has been working with law enforcement to control prostitution and trafficking. Driving the services off Craigslist will simply drive them under ground, and give pimps and sex slavers the secrecy they thrive on. Part of the cruelty of abuse victims is the feeling that they're invisible, that there's nowhere they can go to help; state attorneys general, by hectoring Craigslist to taking down its Adult Services section, have made abuse victims more powerless, boyd argues. Moreover, cops already know about more abuse cases than they have the time and money prosecute; by diverting resources to policing Internet advertising, law enforcement would be blocked from protecting victims.

The ACTA treaty erodes property rights. It prevents you and me from making lawful use of lawfully purchased merchandise.

In the case of the shield law, Congress, with journalists' collusion, are carving out a tool that authorities can use to control speech. President Obama has demonstrated willingness to classify documents as state secrets when those documents have no military bearing at all -- for example, the ACTA treaty itself. The shield law exemption, which is proposed as a way to protect national security, would provide a means for the powerful to keep secrets from political enemies and the people they should be serving.

We now live in a Golden Age of free speech. The Internet gives anyone the freedom to publish anything they want, and have that content visible all around the world. These three laws would roll back that freedom. Established businesses and government, working hand in hand, would have the power to filter speech in advance, and block anything simply by slapping a "prostitution," "state secret," or "copyright violation" label on it. Free speech would backtrack to the 20th Century, where owning a TV or radio station or a printing press was a prerequisite for the right to be heard.

Fighting prostitution, protecting national security, and protecting copyright are important. But we already have laws to do those things. America's founders, in their wisdom, put a tight leash on government's ability to put prior restraint on speech. You can write or publish anything you want, but you must answer to the consequences after the speech is out. If you're a pimp, or you leak state secrets, or violate copyright, you go to jail. That's the way to protect safety while guaranteeing freedom. Prior restraint is simply a license to state control.

Mitch Wagner

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is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

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