New legislation could be the start to slippery slope of oppressing civil liberties

Published in the Daily Illini December 5th, 2011

There are two vital pieces of legislation that are moving quickly through Congress right now. The Pentagon’s budget for 2012 has an added provision that would allow the military to indefinitely jail any terrorist suspect, including U.S. citizens, without ever being formerly charged or tried.

The second is the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that would criminalize the sharing or distribution of any copyrighted material on the Internet. Copyright owners, such as big Hollywood studios and record companies, will have the legal ability to shut down entire websites that share and distribute their material without their authorization.

Both of the bills are bipartisan efforts with excellent chances of passing onto President Barack Obama’s desk. The mere suggestion of these policies is an unsettling warning that clearly demonstrates the power of radical neo-conservative and pro-corporate interests in Washington.

Make no mistake: If put into law, these bills would result in nothing short of a corporate police state, enforced online and in the homeland. Despite the speed at which these pieces of legislation are advancing in Congress, I think we should take it slow.

First, the detention provision that was slyly inserted into the Pentagon budget recognizes the United States itself as a “battleground” in the war on terror. The outrageous detention and sustained torture of Bradley Manning, the army private who allegedly leaked U.S. diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, is now the model for what ordinary people will undergo if they are suspected to “substantially support” Al Qaeda, the Taliban or “associated forces.”

True, the U.S. has been committing these crimes around the world for the past decade. But if we codify into law the right of indefinite military detention and assassination without charge as a punishment for treason (Art. III, Sec. 3), we will see a snowball effect of even more flagrantly unconstitutional amendments.
Obama vowed to use his veto on the grounds that it would “constrain the President’s critical authorities to collect intelligence and incapacitate dangerous terrorists.” But don’t think that he is all of a sudden concerned with protecting due process in open court: He ordered the assassination of U.S. citizen Anwar al- Awlaki completely due process-free. The veto threat simply argues that only the Executive Branch has the power to prosecute the war on terror, and Congress has no right to threaten those powers.

SOPA is another slippery slope that will similarly lead to civilian crackdowns and the end of open Internet. It is supposedly aimed to protect the “intellectual property” of copyrighted material, but really only works to fatten the pockets of entertainment industry giants and their artists, who feel that nobody has the right to use or experience their ideas without getting paid.

Stephen Colbert hosted a debate on his show last week about SOPA, and his guest Jonathan Zittrain pointed out that if the law passes, Justin Bieber will become a felon because he has independently released songs on YouTube that are now owned by his record label. The unauthorized release of these songs would land him in jail for three years for the first offense. Further, if somebody shares any unauthorized media on Twitter or Facebook, the entire site could be shut down.

If these legislative trends continue, Americans will discover that they are living within the same type of authoritarian regime they’ve been popularly conditioned to despise, i.e.. Iran and China. Heck, SOPA is straight out of Chinese Internet Censorship 101, where recently they banned the Google search of the word “occupy” next to any Chinese city. SOPA’s criminalization of unauthorized media sharing online will lead to further restrictions on non-art forms of human expression, most importantly political opinion.

Suddenly, we the citizenry find ourselves threatened by the confines of intellectual property laws and the still- expanding war on terror. Keep in mind that fighting Al-Quaida is the continuing rationale for our wars, even though we killed their symbolic leader and all but two “high-value” targets.

Catching terrorists is the rhetorical pretext for escalating the military’s power. But illegal surveillance and detention policies stretch far beyond their original purpose. Likewise, SOPA is meant to prevent piracy, but will inevitably snowball to restrict the flow of information and alter the general architecture of the Internet. Important civil liberties are at stake with these legislations. Unfortunately, they appear to be just the tip of the iceberg for what may follow.