The End of the Internet As We Know It?

Could the day be approaching when blogging about how much you dislike the Church of Scientology or a certain political candidate gets you knocked off the net? Or worse, a heavy knock on the door?

Love it or hate it, the Internet of old appears to be on its way out. A few years from now, two recent news items, when taken together, may reveal a turning point. Most recent was the agreement of several major ISPs to censor Internet traffic. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has coaxed Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Sprint into dropping the long-accepted notion that ISPs are immune from liability for content posted by users, much the same way that phone companies have eschewed liability for what people say in phone calls and, to get historical about it, printing machine makers took no responsibility for what was printed with their presses. This principle, that the carrier is not responsible for what is carried, is even established in law, notably under the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

But as David Kravets, writing at observes, under the Cuomo deal, "the ISPs seem to acknowledge a moral role in policing the internet."

The leverage Cuomo used to effect this change in attitude is child pornography, something so vile that it can often lead otherwise clear-headed people to throw reason, and the rule of law, out the window. (I think very few people, myself included, could guarantee they would act reasonably and lawfully if face-to-face with a child pornographer.)

However, this new ISP agreement could prove to be a slippery slope. If ISPs agree to police one thing, why not another? Kravets quotes Wendy Seltzer from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University: "Others are now likely to get in line asking to [filter] different material." That's probably an understatement. Some people have been chomping at this bit for more than a decade. People like the Scientologists.

Back in 1995 the Church of Scientology instigated police raids and other actions against detractors who had started to use the Internet to expose certain aspects of Scientology that the group would rather keep secret. At the time I was working for NCSA, pre-cursor to ICSA Labs, and one of the first places people turned, back then, for advice about network security. And that's how I found myself on the phone with an unhappy lawyer for the Church of Scientology. She was looking for an expert witness to bolster her argument that ISPs and Web site hosting companies could be held liable for copyright violations committed by customers and users.

(In court papers that the Church of Scientology filed that year, lawyers claimed the teachings of its founder were protected by copyright law and could not be used without the church's permission; documents posted on the lnternet were said to reveal teachings on how to communicate with plants, trees and zoo animals, and various other "secrets".)

I'm not a lawyer but from 1990-1995 I had written a telecomms column for VNU and the angle she was working with me was a technical one, trying to counter the claim by ISPs that holding them responsible was technically impossible. My response was that I had no desire to help the Church of Scientology undermine a principle in which I believe quite strongly, namely that the interests of a free and open society are not best served by encumbering the means of communication with liability for what they communicate.

I have no idea of the current Scientology position on freedom of the Internet, but put the above together with the Viacom/Google lawsuit and you can see where the net could be headed. Viacom is pursuing a $1 billion copyright infringement lawsuit against Google over YouTube's failure to keep all copyrighted material off its popular video-sharing site. Google has said that YouTube, which it owns, "goes far beyond its legal obligations in assisting content owners to protect their works." Apparently that is not enough for Viacom, leading Google to claim that, by seeking to make carriers and hosting providers liable for Internet communications, Viacom "threatens the way hundreds of millions of people legitimately exchange information, news, entertainment and political and artistic expression."

One has to wonder--if companies like Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Sprint agree that they have a duty and obligation to block traffic and sites that contain child porn--how long will it be before they are sued for failure to fulfill that obligation with sufficient vigor, as Google is being sued by Viacom? And how long will it be before the Church of Scientology and other groups file suit to force ISPs to accept a duty and obligation to block traffic and sites that contain whatever content those groups object to? Could blogging about how much you dislike the Church of Scientology or a certain political candidate get you knocked off the net? The implications for both personal privacy and public discourse are chilling.

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