Death To Due Process, Death To Liberty
Yesterday over 7,000 websites went dark to protest two bills under consideration by the U.S. Congress. Google put a black box over its logo on its search page. Wikipedia denied user access for most of the day. Many other major websites found ways to protest. We pray it was not too little, too late.
The “Protect IP Act” (PIPA) in the Senate and the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) in the House of Representatives were both conceived as ways to put a stop to the theft of intellectual property on the Internet. It is a laudable goal.
Incredibly, we live in a world where many citizens claim they ought to have the right to download copyrighted material for free, insisting that those who labored to create the material have no right of ownership. But of course the fact remains that Americans own the products they produce, and nobody has a moral, ethical or legal right to take their work without paying for it.
Songs, movies and books do not produce themselves, and musicians, movie makers, and authors are not slaves. Artists have the same rights as, say, a farmer raising crops. To download intellectual property without paying for it simply because new technology makes it possible is morally identical to backing a truck up to a field and helping oneself to crops grown by the sweat of the farmer’s brow simply because the farmer isn’t there to stop it.
That said, the SOPA and PIPA bills are not the answer. On the contrary, they are nothing less that an assault on American civil rights.
The bills would place the responsibility to police the Internet for copyright infringing material on those who own websites where such material might be uploaded by third parties. That’s a huge legal problem and financial burden for sites like Facebook, Youtube and Wikipedia, for example, where millions of pages of information are added daily by users. It’s like holding the U.S. Postal Service accountable for the content of the letters they deliver.
The bills would also have a chilling effect on Internet innovation, because venture capital investors have already said they would no longer be interested in financially supporting startups that have such a high level of liability.
They would obliterate Internet privacy, since the laws would require new levels of transparency into the sources of all content.
Most importantly, SOPA and PIPA would strip domestic website owners of their constitutional right to due process. Say some nutcase decides to claim these very words you’re reading right now were originally written by him. He sends a letter to DailyCristo’s internet service provider (ISP) stating that he intends to sue us for infringing on his copyrighted material. Under SOPA and PIPA, our ISP would be protected from liability for any harm done to us if they immediately shut down our website pending a court decision on the matter. But they would be exposed to liability if they allowed us to keep running until a court made a decision on the matter, if the court decided we were guilty. So our ISP would have every incentive to shut us down, merely on the basis of a letter from a nutcase — not based on a court order, mind you, but merely on that nutcase’s say-so — and no incentive to wait until a court got to the bottom of the nutcase’s allegation.
In other words, under these new bills websites like ours (or yours, if you have one) could be shut down without a trial by a jury of our peers, and we would be presumed guilty until proven innocent, and there’s nothing we could do about it.
Clearly, these provisions of the SOPA and PIPA bills violate the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. But they are merely the latest attempt by members of Congress to violate their oath of office and betray their fellow Americans’ constitutional rights.
Consider the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This blatant violation of our civil rights, which President Obama signed into law on the last day of 2011, contains provisions which allow the government to detain American citizens, on American soil, and hold us indefinitely without due process.
This is not some possibility to worry about later; this is currently the law of the land: If you are an American, you no longer have a guaranteed right to face your accusers. You no longer have a guaranteed right to trial by a jury of your peers. You can be arrested and detained for as long as the government desires (or until the “cessation of hostilities” in the “war on terror”) based only on the suspicion that you might be associated with a terrorist organisation.
People on the political left and right alike protested that travesty of justice, just as they protested SOPA and PIPA yesterday. They were correct to do so. Indeed, it was nothing less than our duty as American patriots.
But we failed. The Congressional and Presidential assault on our basic freedoms became law.
Will we fail again and lose still more of our God-given rights with the passage of SOPA or PIPA? Will we continue to stand together as we did yesterday, in defense of basic civil liberties? Or will we allow our disagreements on lesser matters to distract us again, as they did with the draconian NDAA?
There is a dynamic to these issues that transcends the threats our politicians use to justify themselves, threats such as terrorism and piracy. (Interesting, that two such similar concepts have been used to excuse the erosion of our civil rights. Too often in human history fear has been used by tyrants to justify the death of liberty.) Simply put, that larger dynamic is this:
Our Congress and our President have abandoned eternal truths to manage temporary problems.
A hundred years from now, Al-Qaeda and Internet piracy will be footnotes in American history books, but if we allow our government to withhold our civil rights in order to defend us from such things, a hundred years from now America as we know it will not exist.
The founders of this nation framed ideas like freedom of speech and due process in cosmic terms, as fundamental laws of nature, as if they are non-negotiable, irrefutable, and irresistible, like gravity. They were right. The freedoms our Congress and President seem to be intent upon trading away for mere security are nothing less than the essential prerequisites for those certain “truths” which the founders considered “self evident.” Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are impossible without free speech and a just legal system.
Unfortunately, we the people did not rise up in protest when Congress and the Obama Administration removed our right to a trial by a jury of our peers with the NDAA. The day when the President signed that bill into law was as dark as the days when Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center were attacked. It should be marked with December 7 and September 11 as one of the blackest days on the American calendar.
Yesterday the American people said, “Enough.” And we did it in such numbers that all but the most arrogant elected officials in Washington understood there is a limit to our patience. Even most of the bills’ sponsors have backed down.
But the battle is not over. SOPA’s main sponsor in the House of Representatives, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) continues to insist the bill is no threat to liberty. It is a common ploy of tyrants to deny that they are doing what they’re doing, of course. In his chilling novel about the total loss of liberty, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell wrote about “the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts.”
Faced with such a policy, we can only pray that yesterday’s awakening was not momentary; that it will lead to a prolonged willingness to pay whatever price may be required to protect our nation’s hard won freedoms. If we do not stop the corruption creeping through our nation’s capital today with protests and with votes, the dreadful day may come when we face a much more costly choice.
Ours is a nation divided, and there are scoundrels in high places — in big media, in big government, in big business — who desire it so. They see our divisions as diversions, a smoke screen of confusion behind which they can take for themselves the rights and powers which God intended should belong to we, the people. Even now these evil men and women seek to strip away two and a half centuries of freedom as we fight among ourselves. We pray those on the left and on the right and every American between them on the wide spectrum of political opinion will wake up, abandon less important disagreements, and stand together against the creeping tyranny which seeks to take our nation and our liberty.
“Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” (Patrick Henry, Speech to the Virginia Convention, March 23, 1775)