Recently, I covered defamation law and the Internet. To give you an idea how unsettled defamation law now is, American comedienne Lena Dunham is threatening to sue a Web site for quoting her own words.

Copyright law on the Internet is similarly unsettled. The United States is negotiating to turn it into a regime that can quite easily lead to control of the Internet.

In the age of print media, I was at one time a permissions editor, and Disney’s fierce protection of the copyright on all its products was legendary. That attitude has become a U.S. government obsession today.

As Internet copyright specialist Emma Woollacott puts it at Forbes,

Wikileaks has released a new draft of the intellectual property chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, revealing that the US is still pushing for draconian measures on copyright infringement.

The US is pushing the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which would make ISPs and even coffee shops liable for copyright infringement by customers. That country also seeks much longer copyright terms, life plus 50 through 100 years, and criminal sanctions for copyright infringement even for non-commercial cases, with no exceptions for journalism or whistle-blowing.

In one such case in the United States, Woollacott notes,

Indeed, a similar provision in a free trade agreement between Columbia and the US led to copyright laws that saw a Columbian graduate student arrested for posting another student’s academic paper online without permission.

Many countries have caved. The reason may well be that, as James Love at Knowledge Ecology International suggests, not much is necessarily at stake:

“Developing countries are being asked to accept very restrictive standards for intellectual property in return for transition periods that defer the harm until current governments are now longer held accountable,” he says. “This will be a short-term benefit in exchange for a long term harm.”

The only serious holdout at present is apparently Canada, which has registered opposition to proposals a record 56 times, and enacted its own copyright legislation in response.

Also at Forbes, Katheryn Thayer offers some background on the organization sponsoring these negotiations:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, frequently referred to as “TPP”, is a trade agreement initiated in 2005 and attended by US, Japan, Australia, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Chile, Singapore, Canada, Mexico, and Brunei Darussalam. Every few years, more information is leaked, and with every leak, open Internet activists and free speech advocates become more alarmed at the threat to civilian rights and public best-interest. Leaked details routinely demonstrate the group is extending corporate intellectual property rights, and corporate partners are invited into proceedings while the general public is excluded.

A serious concern is that the new rules may kill innovation. And stifle freedom of speech:

Cynthia Khoo, an OpenMedia volunteer and community member, explains some of the technicalities here: “If popular user-driven websites such as eBay, YouTube, or WordPress receive a copyright infringement notice, they must take down the offending content or risk being sued. The problem is that anyone can send a notice, and nobody confirms if the claim is legal or reasonable before taking action. As a result, Internet content disappears rapidly, amounting to wide-scale censorship of what is normally protected speech.”

Obviously, a key concern of advocacy groups is that public input has rarely been sought and few members of the public even know much about the many proposals.

It’s not too late. University of Ottawa law prof Michael Geist comments,

While a comprehensive assessment of the chapter will take some time, the immediate takeaway is that the U.S. remains fairly isolated in its efforts to overhaul patent and copyright law around the world with Canada emerging as the leading opponent of its demands.

Jeremy Malcolm and Maira Sutton of the Electronic Frontier Foundation note that U.S. anti-copyright infringement laws have mostly failed when applied to the Internet and say:

If we are going to pressure other countries to adopt our failed policies, the least we should do is let them have an relatively easy way to prevent those policies from crippling innovation and free expression. What is worse, it would likely impede countries from adopting laws (such as those of India, although that law is hardly a paragon) that provide a blanket exemption for DRM circumvention for lawful purposes.

The take home point is that control of the Internet is too good for an expanding government to pass up, yet citizens take the freedom the medium offers them for granted.

No freedom should be taken for granted.



Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...