Did The RIAA Helped Pave The Way For Spain To Undermine Democracy? [Op-Ed]


12In this sure to be controversial piece, Techdirt’s Mike Masnick continues his war on the RIAA by dipping back into history to explain how it was at the urging of the RIAA the the US government began seizing domains, and how this later contributed to Spain’s political conflicts and its upcoming referendum.

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Guest post by Mike Masnick of Techdirt

This might seem like a harsh title, but let’s go back a bit into history. In 2010, at the direct urging of the RIAA, the US government, in the form of ICE, suddenly decided that it could seize domains right out from under websites with zero due process. Specifically, the RIAA gave ICE a list of websites that it insisted were engaging in piracy. It later turned out that this list was completely bogus — and the seized domains included some music blogs and a search engine — and when ICE asked the RIAA to provide the evidence (incredibly, many months after seizing the domains…), it turns out that they had none. Even with all of this, ICE kept one blog’s domain for over a year, while denying that site’s lawyer even the chance to talk to the judge overseeing the case — and (even more incredibly) kept two other sites for five whole years.

The RIAA, who was directly quoted in the affidavit used to seize these domains (including falsely claiming that a non-RIAA song, that was personally given to the site by the independent artist in question, was an RIAA song and infringing) later tried to downplay its role in all of this, while still insisting that seizing entire domains based on flimsy claims and zero evidence was a perfectly reasonable strategy.

11Fast forward to the present. Over in Spain there’s a big political fight over Catalonia independence, with an upcoming referendum that the Spanish government has declared illegal. Things got very messy with Spanish law enforcement raiding government buildings, offices and homes. There are all sorts of human rights issues being raised here, let alone questions of democracy. However, those aren’t directly the kinds of things we cover here. What did catch our attention, however, is that one of the raids was on the operators of the .cat domain, puntCAT, in order to seize the websites promoting the upcoming referendum and to arrest the company’s head of IT for sedition (yes, sedition).

As EFF’s Jeremy Malcolm explains, this should raise all sorts of alarms and concerns:

We have deep concerns about the use of the domain name system to censor content in general, even when such seizures are authorized by a court, as happened here. And there are two particular factors that compound those concerns in this case. First, the content in question here is essentially political speech, which the European Court of Human Rights has ruled as deserving of a higher level of protection than some other forms of speech. Even though the speech concerns a referendum that has been ruled illegal, the speech does not in itself pose any imminent threat to life or limb.

The second factor that especially concerns us here is that the seizure took place with only 10 days remaining until the scheduled referendum, making it unlikely that the legality of the domains’ seizures could be judicially reviewed before the referendum is scheduled to take place. The fact that such mechanisms of legal review would not be timely accessible to the Catalan independence movement, and that the censorship of speech would therefore be de facto unreviewable, should have been another reason for the Spanish authorities to exercise restraint in this case.

Whether it’s allegations of sedition or any other form of unlawful or controversial speech, domain name intermediaries should not be held responsible for the content of websites that utilize their domains. If such content is unlawful, a court order directed to the publisher or host of that content is the appropriate way for authorities to deal with that illegality, rather than the blanket removal of entire domains from the Internet. The seizure of .cat domains is a worrying signal that the Spanish government places its own interests in quelling the Catalonian independence movement above the human rights of its citizens to access a free and open Internet, and we join ordinary Catalonians in condemning it.

I agree entirely with Malcolm’s assessment, but should note that the US government (even if it wanted to, which it probably does not…) has no moral high ground here, seeing as it’s been seizing domains for the better part of a decade, with some of those earliest seizures coming on behalf of the RIAA (over trumped up charges). As Malcolm says, this doesn’t mean that all illegal content must remain online, but seizing domains is a brute force intimidation and censorship tool for governments. The RIAA should be ashamed that it helped “pioneer” this sort of government censorship.