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US government to vote on net censorship

Should the government be allowed to censor the Internet? This week, the US Senate is set to vote on a new piece of legislation which would force ISPs to block certain Internet addresses - namely, those that it feels support copyright infringement.

The bill, called Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeit Act (COICA), would enable copyright owners to prevent people from surfing to certain sites, by simply forbidding Internet service providers from letting you go there. Your Internet service provider is your gateway to the Internet. Theoretically, it can stop you going anywhere it wants.

If the court serves an order on a domain name seen to infringe on US copyright, "a service provider, as that term is defined in section 512(k)(1) of title 17, United States Code, or other operator of a domain name system server shall take reasonable steps that will prevent a domain name from resolving to that domain name’s Internet protocol address," says the Bill.

In practice, the determined and tech-savvy will probably still be able to get through, using encrypted tunnels and proxy servers, but for the majority of Internet users unfamiliar with such things, file sharing and other sites will be blocked for good.

The 'other sites' part is important here. Right now, the legislation targets sites that infringe on copyright, but who's to say that, once it is passed, it won't be expanded? A campaign launched to fight the legislation worried that it might be expanded to block everything from the site WikiLeaks (which has upset the US government by publishing secret, leaked documents), porn, activist sites, and web domains operated by people that the US suspects of terrorism.

The campaign asks why the government doesn't simply apply legally to shut down domains that it suspects of infringing copyright. But of course, it isn't that simple. Many domains are hosted in faraway countries with little interest in co-operating with law enforcers in the US.

So, should the government have the right to blacklist specific sites on the Internet and stop you from visiting them? This legislation applies purely to the US - but it sets a precedent that could one day be adopted by our government north of the border.

Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets 

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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.