Update 7/20/2010: New reports are emerging, indicating that much of the original information about the shuttering of Blogetary.com (see below) was incorrect. According to these new reports, Blogetary.com was shuttered by its ISP because of terrorism-related material on its blog network.
The Burst.net hosting provider actually made the decision to shutter the blogs, not the federal government, making this an example of corporate overstep rather than federal overstep (though no less inappropriate). Burst.net and/or the FBI should have contacted the operator of Blogetary.com directly so that he could terminate the account(s) in question. Blogetary.com should only have been shut down in its entirety if/when its operators failed to take action.
I have left my original entry regarding this matter available below. Note that while, in this particular instance, the Obama administration bears little or no blame for what happened, there have been other recent examples of federal Internet overstep and the core thesis of my article remains valid despite the incorrect details of this case.
From 2001 until the end of George W. Bush’s (R) presidency, we kept hearing over and over about how the Patriot Act and other anti-terror laws were trampling the Constitution and eroding our civil rights. When people said this to me, I would generally ask them to do something quite simple: present an example of somebody’s civil rights being trampled under those laws. Generally, people would trail-off or say something about Guantanamo (non-citizens captured on foreign battlefields don’t have rights under U.S. law) or military tribunals (the Constitution requires a ‘due process’ be followed; military tribunals have been an established means of due process for dealing with war criminals and enemy combatants since the earliest days of our republic).
With the changing of political administrations, many toward the ‘left’ of the political spectrum breathed a sigh of relief. Guantanamo would close, the Patriot Act would be repealed, etc., etc., etc. Obviously none of that happened, which isn’t a big deal since those things never proved to be an actual issue. But something very disturbing has started happening under President Barack Obama (D). His administration has embarked on an unprecedented effort to stem illegal file sharing on the Internet. I don’t object to this on principle; illegal file sharing is illegal and our laws must be enforced. I do, however, object to how the administration has gone about its enforcement.
You see, when I share a song, movie, or piece of software that I don’t have the right to share with others, I have committed a crime. Me. I can be prosecuted for it and, if I get caught, I should be. The Internet service I’m using to connect to the web, however, can’t. They didn’t commit the crime. The file sharing service I’m using can’t. They didn’t commit the crime either. The federal government, in enforcing copyright law, can’t seize or prosecute an ISP, file sharing service, or other provider for the activities of its users—in fact, Internet providers have explicit legal protection against government prosecution for the activities of their users. The courts have taken a broad view of what an Internet service provider is, including web sites like Amazon.com.
So I was quite surprised to find that the U.S. government has prompted the shutdown of a blogging web site called ‘ ‘ because some of its users were, presumably, committing copyright violations. Unless the operators of blogetery.com itself were breaking the law—and there’s no evidence yet that they were—they should have been immune from this kind of action. In shutting down the site, the government also shut down the blogs of all of its 73,000 users. This is akin to the government shutting down Verizon FIOS because three out of its millions of users were trafficking in child pornography; it’s a gross overstep of federal authority that tramples the rights of thousands for the transgressions of a few.
Having now established a precedent for seizing and/or shutting down web services because illegal activity happens on a network, what’s next? Can a city’s power system be shut down because a certain percentage of its users use that power to grow marijuana? Can a computer company be shut down because a terrorist uses its products to plan attacks? Can Google be shut down because somebody arranges to embezzle money with an accomplice over GMail? And if the government can do these things, how long before it’s doing them with ulterior motives? How long before a political opponent’s web site is knocked off-line [coincidentally, of course] when the government discovers its hosting provider has one user out of millions that posted an illegal copy of Avatar?
The civil rights advocates tilted at windmills for most of Bush’s presidency and, now that violations really are happening, I hope they’ll raise their voices again. So far, the silence has been deafening.