Threading the Needle

Imagine that Ron Wyden fails: either PROTECT IP or SoPA / E-PARASITE passes and is signed into law by President Obama. Advocacy groups such as the EFF would launch an immediate constitutional challenge to the bill’s censorship mandates. I believe the outcome of such litigation is far less certain than either side believes. American censorship legislation would keep lots of lawyers employed (always a good thing in a down economy), and might generate some useful First Amendment jurisprudence. Let me sketch three areas of uncertainty that the courts would have to resolve, and that improve the odds that such a bill would survive.

First, how high is the constitutional barrier to the legislation? Both bills look like systems of prior restraint, which loads the government with a “heavy presumption” against their constitutionality . The Supreme Court’s jurisprudence in the two most relevant prior cases, Reno v. ACLU and Ashcroft v. ACLU, applied strict scrutiny: laws must serve a compelling government interest, and be narrowly tailored to that interest. This looks bad for the state, but wait: we’re dealing with laws regulating intellectual property, and such laws draw intermediate scrutiny at most. This is what I call the IP loophole in the First Amendment. Copyright law, for example, enjoys more lenient treatment under free speech examination because the law has built-in safeguards such as fair use, the idea-expression dichotomy, and the (ever-lengthening) limited term of rights.

Moreover, it’s not certain that the bills even regulate speech. Here, I mean “speech” in its First Amendment sense, not the colloquial one. Burning one’s draft card at a protest seems like speech to most of us – the anti-war message is embodied within the act – but the Supreme Court views it as conduct. And conduct can be regulated so long as the government meets the minimal strictures of rational review. The two bills focus on domain name filtering – they impede users from reaching certain on-line material, but formally limit only the conversion of domain name to IP address by an Internet service provider. (I’m skipping over the requirement that search engines de-list such sites, which is a much clearer case of regulating speech.) DNS lookups seem akin to conduct, although the Court’s precedent in this area is hardly a model of lucidity. (Burning the American flag = speech; burning a draft card = conduct. QED.) Other courts have struggled, most notably in the context of the anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to categorize domain names as speech or not-speech, and thus far have found a kind of Hegelian duality to them. That suggests an intermediate level of scrutiny, which would resonate with the IP loophole analysis above.

Second, who has standing? It seems that our plaintiffs would need to find a site that conceded it met the definition of a site “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property.” That seems hard to do until filtering begins – at which point whatever ills the legislation creates will have materialized. (It might also expose the site to suits from affected IP owners.) Perhaps Internet service providers could bring a challenge based on either third-party standing (on behalf of their users, if we think users’ rights are implicated, or the foreign sites) or their own speech interests. However, I think it’s unlikely that users would have standing, particularly given the somewhat dilute harm of being unable to reach material on allegedly infringing sites. And, as described above, it’s not clear that ISPs have a speech interest at all: domain name services simply may be conduct. 

Finally, how can we distinguish E-PARASITE or PROTECT IP from similar legislation that passes constitutional muster? Section 1201 of the DMCA, for example, permits liability to be imposed not only on those who make tools for circumventing access controls available, but even on those who knowingly link to such tools on-line. The government can limit distribution of encryption technology – at least as object code – overseas, by treating it as a munition. And thus far, the federal government has been able to seize domain names under civil forfeiture provisions, with nary a quibble from the federal courts.

To be plain: I think both bills are terrible legislation. They’re certain to damage America’s technology innovation industries, which are the crown jewels of our economy and our future competitiveness. They turn over censorship decisions to private actors with no interest whatsoever in countervailing values such as free expression or, indeed, anything other than their own profit margins. And their procedural protections are utterly inadequate – in my view. But I think it is possible that these bills may thread the constitutional needle, particularly given the one-way ratchet of copyright protection before the federal courts. The decision in Ashcroft, for instance, found that end user filtering was a narrower alternative than the Children’s Online Protection Act. But end user filtering doesn’t work when the person installing the software is not a parent concerned about on-line filth, but one eager to download infringing movies. And that means that legislation may escape narrowness analysis as well. As I wrote in Orwell’s Armchair:

focusing only on content that is clearly unlawful – such as child pornography, obscenity, or intellectual property infringement – has constitutional benefits that can help a statute survive. These categories of material do not count as “speech” for First Amendment analysis, and hence the government need not satisfy strict scrutiny in attacking them. Recent bills seem to show that legislators have learned this lesson – the PROTECT IP Act, for example, targets only those Web sites with “no significant use other than engaging in, enabling, or facilitating” IP infringement. Banning only unprotected material could move censorial legislation past overbreadth objections.

So: the outcome of any litigation is not only highly uncertain, but more uncertain than free speech advocates believe. Please paint a more hopeful story for me, and tell me why I’m wrong.

Cross-posted at Prawfsblawg.


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