"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Wyden’s service to the net

Here’s an arresting lead paragraph: “It’s too early to say for sure, but Oregon Senator Ron Wyden could very well go down in the history books as the man who saved the Internet.”

There’s justification for that. What Wyden did was simple enough: He put a hold a piece of legislation. That was important because of what the legislation, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, would do. It would, at base, allow state attorney generals to shut down Internet web sites at will.

Here is what the Electronic Frontier Foundation says about the bill:

The “Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act” (COICA) is an Internet censorship bill which is rapidly making its way through the Senate. Although it is ostensibly focused on copyright infringement, an enormous amount of noninfringing content, including political and other speech, could disappear off the Web if it passes.

The main mechanism of the bill is to interfere with the Internet’s domain name system (DNS), which translates names like “www.eff.org” or “www.nytimes.com” into the IP addresses that computers use to communicate. The bill creates a blacklist of censored domains; the Attorney General can ask a court to place any website on the blacklist if infringement is “central” to the purpose of the site.

If this bill passes, the list of targets could conceivably include hosting websites such as Dropbox, MediaFire and Rapidshare; MP3 blogs and mashup/remix music sites like SoundCloud, MashupTown and Hype Machine ; and sites that discuss and make the controversial political and intellectual case for piracy, like pirate-party.us, p2pnet, InfoAnarchy, Slyck and ZeroPaid . Indeed, had this bill been passed five or ten years ago, YouTube might not exist today. In other words, the collateral damage from this legislation would be enormous.

The bill has gotten a lot of support in Congress, and has been heavily (if quietly) lobbied. This pernicious little time bomb could easily have been passed into law had not someone stopped it. That turned out to be Wyden, who has been an open-Internet backer from early on.

Bears saying again: A system of copyrights and intellectual property protection originally intended to help foster creativity and communications is being perverted, in ever worsening ways, into restrictions on speech. One of those may just have been headed off at the pass.

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