Do as I say, not as I do

Copyright National governments must operate in several different domains at once, both domestic and international. To expect absolute consistency in its positions across all of those domains is to misapprehend the role and process of government. Yet for all that, the contrast between current efforts in Congress to block U.S. citizens’ access to certain “rogue” web sites, and those of the U.S. State Department to help citizens of China to circumvent efforts by the Chinese government to block its citizens access to certain web sites, is striking.

Earlier this month, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the PROTECT IP Act, and update of his earlier COICA bill that went nowhere. Like its predecessor, the core of PROTECT IP is a provision authorizing the Attorney General to secure court orders requiring ISPs and DNS server operators to blacklist certain websites or domains found to be “dedicated to infringing activity,” meaning users, instead of being directed to the IP address of the domain they entered, would be redirected somewhere else.

Various third-party vendors, including ad networks, credit card companies and search engines could also be required or encouraged to cease doing business with or linking to the targeted web sites, choking off the web site operator’s sources of revenue.

While nominally aimed at curbing online piracy, the bill has drawn criticism from many quarters for tinkering with the Internet’s basic address system, and for posing a serious and credible threat to free speech. Yet it has bipartisan support on the Hill and is likely to find sympathy within the Obama Administration, which is already pursuing a similar strategy of blocking rogue web sites through the Homeland Security Department’s Operation In Our Sites program.

At the same time, however, the Obama administration is also planning to spend $19 million this fiscal year to develop tools to help Internet users in China evade efforts by the Chinese government to block sites it regards as “rogue.”

According to assistant secretary of state for human rights Michael Posner, the U.S. is developing cutting-edge “slingshot” technology that identifies material other countries are censoring and flings it back at them.

“This can be done through email or posting it on blogs or RSS feeds or websites that the government hasn’t figured out how to block,” Posner said (via).

The funding for the effort comes out of a $30 million pool the U.S. Congress allocated last year to, you guessed it, support Internet freedom.

Anyone want to venture a guess as to how long it will take for those new cutting-edge evasion tools to fall into the hands of web sites “dedicated to infringing activity?”

In any case, the irony is unlikely to be lost on the Chinese. They might even be tempted to “slingshot” it back at us.

Update: Just in case there was a danger that the Chinese might miss the irony of the U.S. position, Google chairman Eric Schmidt on helpfully pointed it out for them Wednesday, telling the Google Big Tent conference in London that the PROTECT IP Act would set a “very bad precedent,” with respect to free speech:

“I would be very, very careful if I were a government about arbitrarily [implementing] simple solutions to complex problems,” Schmidt said, according to a report in the Guardian. “So, ‘let’s whack off the DNS’. Okay, that seems like an appealing solution but it sets a very bad precedent because now another country will say ‘I don’t like free speech so I’ll whack off all those DNSs’ – that country would be China.

“If there is a law that requires DNSs [domain name systems, the protocol that allows users to connect to websites] to do X and it’s passed by both houses of congress and signed by the president of the United States and we disagree with it then we would still fight it,” he added. “If it’s a request the answer is we wouldn’t do it, if it’s a discussion we wouldn’t do it.”

That set off a furious response from copyright owners in the U.S.:

MPAA anti-piracy chief Michael O’Leary (via):

Is Eric Schmidt really suggesting that if Congress passes a law and President Obama signs it, Google wouldn’t follow it? As an American company respected around the world, it’s unfortunate that, at least according to its executive chairman’s comments, Google seems to think it’s above America’s laws. We’ve heard this “but the law doesn’t apply to me” argument before—but usually, it comes from content thieves, not a Fortune 500 company. Google should know better. And the notion that China would use a bi-partisan, narrowly tailored bill as a pretext for censorship is laughable, as Google knows, China does what China does.

Pretty hard for the Chinese to miss it now.