Douwe Osinga's Blog: Copyright and Shutting up political opposition

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A lot has been made of the tension between the US government on the one hand wanting to protect Internet freedom, but on the other hand being open to shutting down sites that are accused of helping copyright infringement. It makes for a nice addition to the toolkit of suppressing free speech within a legal society.

Let's say I am an oppressive regime with some pesky dissidents who are blogging about things I'd rather keep secret. Or maybe they're a semi religious organization that I suspect of having political ideas. Inside the country it's easy to make sure they won't find a host, but they'll just find a blogging platform elsewhere. Sure, you can build up a huge firewall to filter this content, but that's expensive, leaky and doesn't stop people from outside of your country to read the slander.

Intellectual Property to the rescue! The first step is to create a financial claim against your opponents. This is already a popular tool to stop opposition. Tax fraud or libel are popular tricks, but huge fines for political crimes would work too. Having made sure your opponents can't pay up, you seize the assets you're after: their trademark and copyrights.

Now you can legally shut them up. And not just in your own country: with damages up to 150 thousand dollar per copyright infringement it can even be quite profitable. Seizing the trademarks helps you stop the opposition of operating under their own name even in other countries.

It's not without precedent. Scientology has of course for a long time used copyright to shut up critics, but the state of Bavaria has been using copyright to keep Hitler's book Mein Kampf out of bookshops since forever and will presumably do that until the copyright expires in 2015.