Tag: ElCato

The Internet Is Not .gov’s to Regulate

Imagine that Congress passed a law setting up a procedure that could require ordinary citizens like you to remove telephone numbers from your phone book or from the “contacts” list in your phone. What about a policy that cut off the phone lines to an entire building because some of its tenants used the phone to plot thefts or fraud? Would it be okay with you if the user of the numbers coming out of your phone records or the tenants of the cut-off building had been adjudged “rogue” users of the phone?

Cutting off phone lines is the closest familiar parallel to what Congress is considering in two bills nicknamed “SOPA” and “PIPA”—the “Stop Online Piracy Act” and the “PROTECT IP Act.”

Julian Sanchez has vigorously argued several points about these bills. Here, I’ll try to describe what they try to do to the Internet.

Simplifying, every computer and server has an IP (or “Internet Protocol”) address, which is a set of numbers that uniquely identify its location on the Internet. The IP address for the server hosting Cato’s Spanish language site, elcato.org, for example, is 67.192.234.234.

Now, these numbers are hard to remember, so there is a system that translates IP addresses into something more familiar. That’s the domain name system, or “DNS.” The domain name system takes the memorable name that you type into the address bar of your computer, such as elcato.org, and it looks up the IP address so you can be forwarded along to the IP address of your choice.

One of the major ideas behind SOPA and PIPA is to cut Internet sites that violate copyright out of the domain name system. No longer could typing “elcato.org” get you to the Web site you wanted to visit. Much of the debate has been about the legal process for determining whether to strike out a domain name.

But preventing a domain name lookup doesn’t take the site off the Internet. It just makes it slightly harder to access. You can prove it to yourself right now by copying “67.192.234.234” (without the quotes) and plugging it into your address bar. (The Internet is complicated. Some of you might be directed to other Cato sites.) Then come back here and read on, por favor!

The government would require law-abiding citizens to “black out” phone numbers—or Internet service providers to do the same with domain names—for this little effect on wrongdoing? It doesn’t make sense. The practical burdens on the law-abiding Internet service provider would be large. “Blacking out” an entire building—just like a Web site—would cut off the lawful communications right along with the unlawful ones. It’s through-the-looking-glass information control, with enormous potential to obstruct entirely lawful communications and impinge on First Amendment rights.

Which is why many Web sites today are “blacking out” in protest. In various ways, sites like Craigslist.org, Wikipedia, and many others are signaling to their visitors that Congress is threatening the core functioning of the Internet with bills like SOPA and PIPA. And threatening all of our freedom to communicate.

The Internet is not the government’s to regulate. It is an agreement on a set of protocols—a language that computers use to talk to one another. That language is the envelope in which our communications—our First-Amendment-protected speech—travels in hundreds of different forms.

The Internet community is growing in power. (Let’s not be triumphal—government authorities will use every wile to maintain control.) Hopefully the people who get engaged to fight SOPA and PIPA will recognize the many ways that the government regulates and limits information flows through technical means. The federal government exercises tight control over electromagnetic spectrum, for example, and it claims authority to impose public-utility-style regulation of Internet service provision in the name of “net neutrality.”

Under the better view—the view of freedom behind opposition to SOPA and PIPA—these things are not the government’s to regulate.

Cuban Agents Beat Up Young Dissident (and ElCato.org Contributor)

A year and a half ago I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba and meet with a group of young dissidents. Despite their early age, these guys had already suffered enormously the rigors of their totalitarian government. One of them had been imprisoned four times for his political activism. Constant official harassment was their daily life. But they remain unrepentant about their desire for liberty.

I’m still in touch with one of the guys I met that day, a young independent journalist. Every week he sends me articles and newsletters reporting instances of human rights abuses, lack of opportunities for young people, and how life is in general in the Castro prison-island. We have published several of his articles on ElCato.org.

Last Sunday, my friend was headed to a meeting of young dissidents when he was intercepted by government thugs. This is how Reporters Without Borders reported what happened next:

An attack by State Security agents on 5 April left Alvaro Yero Felipe, a young Havana-based dissident journalist, with a badly bruised face, a broken nose and a split lip. He was on his way with two friends to a meeting in support of prisoners of conscience when members of the political police intercepted him, took him to a nearby park and gave him a beating. “Yero’s experience is unfortunately representative of the mixture of harassment and brutality used by the authorities to crack down on dissent,” Reporters Without Borders said. “As the government has signed UN human rights conventions, it should logically punish officials who violate the international undertakings it has given.

This incident happened the same week that several U.S. Congressmen met with the Castro brothers in Havana and lavished praised on the eldest dictator, Fidel, to whom one of the congressmen described as the “ultimate survivor.” However, the ultimate survivors are the dissidents like my friend Álvaro Yero, who every day risk their life and limbs in pursuit of liberty. He’s my personal hero.