In letters to Google, the Church of Scientology alleges that its critics violate the law when they excerpt copyrighted and trademarked church documents and post them on Web sites. The critics say that the excerpts are essential to expose the dishonesty of the Church of Scientology. But the government’s provisions in favor of copyright holders-in this case the Church of Scientology-have helped censor the critics by prompting search engines to sever links to the critics’ sites. (For news about similar cases, visit chillingeffects.org, sponsored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.)After some hand wringing, Google found a way to continue to reference xenu.net, the anti-Scientology site: the company determined that a link solely to the group’s home page is allowed under the law because the home page itself doesn’t contain any instances of copyright infringement. (Google says the initial “delinking” of the home page was inadvertent.)
Some free-speech advocates cheered Google’s refusal to knuckle under. But Google’s government-mandated censorship continues. If you go to Google and type, “site:xenu.net leaflet,” you’ll see a note at the bottom of the page explaining that links to 10 Web pages have been removed. Is it just me, or does a state-sanctioned drive to suppress Google links about a religious group sound like the case of China and the Falun Gong?
Perhaps the harshest of all the provisions of the copyright law are those that make it illegal to publish any information that might be used to circumvent anticopying technology embedded in software, CDs, DVDs, and any other medium. The situation has gotten so bad that when the software firm Red Hat published a patch to fix an error in its latest version of the Linux operating system, it declined to offer documentation to its U.S. users. Instead, it posted the technical literature on a European site-thefreeworld.net-that specifically prohibits U.S. citizens from accessing the documentation and warns that U.S. users could face jail time and heavy fines.
To combat some of the worst excesses of the law, U.S. Representative Rick Boucher (D-Virginia) is introducing legislation that adds badly needed fair-use provisions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. His proposed Digital Media Consumers’ Rights Act would restore the legal right to publish copyrighted information-even about those evil “circumventing technologies”-as long as the information is explicitly for “scientific research into technological protection measures.”
This legislation deserves support. With a heritage that includes such rabble-rousing pamphleteers as Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams, the United States has long championed freedom of speech. We ought not let our commitment falter on the journey into cyberspace. Otherwise, the most perilous link will be the glaring one between the United States and nations such as China that have no free-speech tradition at all.