American Internet Censorship Worries Some

American Internet censorship isn’t as bad as  the “Great Firewall” of China or Iran’s “halal Internet.” But even in the U.S., there are laws that block certain kinds of speech.

There are many different definitions of what exactly constituted censorship – but they all involve public officials somehow limiting certain expressions made by the populace.

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In the U.S., the first amendment protects virtually all forms of speech, including the Internet, as established in the 1997 Supreme Court case Reno v. ACLU.

However, a handful of laws in recent years have violated this constitutional principle, civil rights groups say. Here’s what they are and why opponents say they amount to censorship:

U.S. Laws currently in effect

DMCA: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, effective 1998.

Intentions: To protect copyright by criminalizing circumvention of anti-piracy measures such as, for instance, the software licensing protecting Adobe Photoshop or MS Word.

Concerns: A censorship effect on free expression and science, as online discussions of copy-protection systems have been removed for fears of DMCA liabilities, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It also potentially criminalizes anyone who “pirates,” even if it’s just downloading a previously protected mp3.

COPPA: Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, effective 2000.

Intentions: To protect children’s privacy online by requiring websites to request consent from parents if a child under 13 gives a website private information.

Concerns: The original bill only targeted kids’ websites, but a 2013 revision protested by the ACLU extended the scope to any websites that could draw children under 13 years. This, the org says, could have a chilling effect as websites delete content to avoid child-friendly content (imagine YouTube deleting Sesame Street) in order to avoid paperwork compliance with COPPA.

CIPA: Children’s Internet Protection Act, effective 2001.

Intentions: Prevent children from seeing obscene or harmful content by requiring filters installed on computers in federally funded schools and libraries.

Concerns: That there is no software filter that can effectively block all “obscene or harmful content” without also blocking constitutionally protected speech, according to (pdf) the American Library Association.

TEA: Trading with the Enemy Act, effective 1917.

Intentions: Prevent Americans from trading with the enemy. Obviously, later amendments applied the act’s authority to the Internet. Cuba is the only current “enemy” on the list.

Concerns: The list, prepared by the Office of Foreign Asset Control, allows Web sites involved in any commercial activity with or related to an “enemy” to be blacklisted and taken down – such as an English travel agent selling trips to Cuba, as reported by the NY Times.

U.S. Laws that were struck down or shelved

CDA: Communications Decency Act, struck down 1997.

Intentions: Prohibit the posting of “indecent” or “patently offensive” materials in a public forum on the Internet.

Concerns: A wide crackdown on Internet free speech as any content would be controlled by the subjective definitions of “indecent” or “patently offensive.”


COPA: Child Online Protection Act, struck down 2009 (not to be confused with COPPA or CIPA)

Intentions: Restrict access by minors to any content that could be harmful to them.

Concerns: An overbroad definition of “harmful” could apply to any website. It also interfered with a user’s right to receive information anonymously, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

DOPA: Deleting Online Predators Act, shelved in 2006.

Intentions: To protect children from online predators by extending the COPPA Internet filters to social networks (it was dubbed the “MySpace bill”)

Concerns: Access to all social networking sites would have been either heavily restricted or banned in schools and libraries, block off vast amounts of potentially useful information, according to the Center for Democracy & Technology.

SOPA and PIPA: Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect-IP Act, both shelved in 2012.

Intentions: To combat piracy with a broad set of measures, including a ban on advertising with infringing sites (think video games ads on PirateBay), blocking search engines from such sites, and requiring ISPs to block such sites.

Concerns: A crackdown on any site that could hold pirated material, such as Dropbox or RapidShare. The bill would also have given rightholders the power to pressure payment processors to cut off payments to infringing sites.

U.S. Laws on the horizon

CISPA: Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, proposed 2013 (dubbed a “zombie bill” for its many returns after being shelved in Congress).

Intentions: Protect against cyberattacks by allowing companies to share information with the federal government.

Concerns: A massive chilling effect on the free flow of speech and information as the collection of private user data, which could include chats, emails and people’s online browsing histories as well as personally identifiable information, is saved by private companies.

TPP: The Trans-Pacific Partnership, proposed 200* (we covered it here)

Intentions: Facilitate trade between the U.S., Japan, Australia, and 10 other Pacific countries.

Concerns: A 95-page Intellectual Property chapter that could incentivize nations to create harsh anti-piracy laws and remove online users’ data protections, according to the EFF.

Updated. Image courtesy of Wonderlane via Flickr.

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Ole Skaar