As a website owner and strong believer in the power of the internet, I would be remiss if I did not comment on this story.

The Department of Homeland Security, as of last night, November 26th 2010, seized and shut down as many as 77 websites for copyright infringement.

The reason I linked to that particular article is because I like the summary. The argument about copyright laws in relation to the internet has been raging for 15 years now, and it is a truly tough argument. I’m stuck in that argument myself. On the one hand, I believe everyone has the right to own their ideas and build a business off of them, whether that business is artistic, scientific, handicraft, whatever. And I believe that torrenting files falls under piracy law as it exists currently. On the other hand, I believe in the free flow of ideas. I don’t think you should have to pay me to view my website. I don’t think you should have to pay a higher premium to have more bandwidth — that would put those of us with low incomes at a further disadvantage, and put knowledge in the hands of the rich (who tend to be conservative, and who have in the past promoted wonderful ideas like child labor and eugenics in order to prevent real competition as it would occur in a true meritocracy).

So basically, I can see both sides of the argument. I am very much concerned that the internet screws over small business and artists in the same way that it screws over large corporations — although to a lesser extent. I don’t think it stifles innovation, because I think current patent and copyright laws stifle innovation in a lot of ways as well. And I have plenty of musician friends who complain rightly about the state of the record industry, and the RIAA’s infamous reaction to music downloading in the early part of the decade. I think there’s been an explosion of innovation because we are all learning how we react to this great international treasure trove that is the Internet. And it’s been around long enough, has become pervasive enough, that limiting it’s usability will be detrimental to any government that tries.

When I first read about the case at this particularly hysterical page, I immediately looked up the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Yes, the proceedings from the Department of Homeland Security are incredibly fishy, and are in fact borderline illegal. And I would like point out that their summary of cybersecurity, which I have linked directly to, demonstrates the kind of soundbite whitewashing pervasive in neo-conservative discourse that I abhor. That’s a touch beside the point. Doublethink aside, the Department of Homeland Security is ignoring some recent legislation that might be too censorious for my personal comfort, but that attempts to protect at least the right of citizens to due process. However, the DHS exists in a world where our country is under constant threat from all sides — a world that exists, but that the very existence of the DHS seems to make worse. And, although it is a government agency somewhat outside of the traditional three branches (like all government agencies), it is not proceeding in an illegal fashion. Unfortunately.

Since the people reading this are pretty smart, I’m sure most of you thought first of Amendment 4, Search and Seizure. Here’s the specific text of that Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The quandry is “but upon probable cause.” We have probable cause, as many of these sites (to my current knowledge) broke existing federal copyright law. That is not to say that the laws being propped up are good, or that the method the DHS chose is morally acceptable; it is only to say that it was legal.

In fact, a great deal of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution puts power in the hands of the people, except in time of War or threat. So the crux of the problem is how threatened we are as a country. Are we under such severe threat from traitors, from terrorists (however you define that term), from anywhere, really, that we should allow one government agency that lurks in the shadow of the executive branch to decide to suspend our citizen rights? I say no. We are under constant pressure from the DHS to be alert, and that puts all of us in such a stressful, heightened state that anything seems like a threat and keeps us from looking ahead, imagining the path of current trends, and trying to come up with new legislation that is more helpful to us, the Citizens of the United States of America.

On the other end of the debate, cyber-piracy is an international problem, and said pirates are going to have to decide whether they are international robin hoods, or citizens of the country they live in with property owned in that particular country; and therefore that country’s laws pertain to them. I don’t think you get to switch depending on how bullied you feel.

The best way to protect citizens is not to prevent access. That’s a band-aid for a larger problem — our current mindset. We can’t have someone stepping in for us, shoving their fingers in our ears, and yelling “LALALALLALALALA.” I’m not a proponent of smaller government, but I do hate terrorism, and frankly I think DHS is becoming a terrorist organization. They use vague language and scare tactics. They’ve spread themselves throughout the government, popping up in cases like this one that have nothing to do with counter-terrorism. In fact, they don’t even define what “terrorism” is on their website. Here’s a definition of terrorism for you, from

the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.
the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
a terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

There are plenty of anti-piracy laws on the books. There’s an entire method for due process that’s been around for 200 years. I know it’s slow, and I know that large corporations (which, since about 1890, have been able to legally consider themselves individuals, and that’s gotta change) are miffed about losing so much money in the meantime, but the illegal sharing of files does not constitute cyber-terrorism. What we need to see from the federal government is either a Declaration of War (on the internet?), or a rescinding of the threat level, and hopefully even a few new Bills added to the Bill of Rights defining specifically what constitutes terrorism, and a large enough national threat to suspend citizen rights.

So we’re all going to have to stand up for what we believe in. I hope we remember how to do that.

One thought on “That’s not good – the DHS has seized at least 77 torrent sites

  1. “The head of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], John Morton, says that the number of illegal movie sites is dramatically rising both in the U.S. and abroad, and organized crime is behind some of them. ICE is putting movie piracy front and center in this new initiative, by making its first actions to protect the movie studios’ intellectual property.”
    When they started this in June, DHS had a court order.
    But it does look like they have taken these sites down without showing their probable cause to any judicial agents—that’s not constitutional and really disturbing.

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