Scientology and Google
Thursday, March 21, 2002 by Dave Winer.
One of the hazards of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, or DMCA, came home today, in a decision by the leading search engine, Google, to ban a site that's critical of the Church of Scientology. The net-effect is that a search for the term Scientology will only yield links to sites that are controlled by the church itself.
How it works. The DMCA has a provision for copyright violations. If a party believes its rights are being infringed, in this case the Scientologists, they can send a demand to an ISP anywhere in the chain of access for the offending material, in this case Google (a bit of a stretch, since Google is hardly an ISP), and if the ISP complies, they cannot be held liable for the infringement.
The site that's being blocked, xenu.net, is in Norway, so they are not subject to the DMCA. The Scientologists can't shut the site itself down because it's outside the US. So they sent a demand to Google, which is based in California, and they complied with the request to remove the content from their index. Now, according to the DMCA, the accused infringer has the right to demand that Google reinstate the content, but there's a catch, if they do, they then would have to agree to the juristiction of the US courts.
Now to the question of whether there's a copyright violation. I've reviewed the site. If there's an infringement it's not very easy to find, and it's clear that the purpose of the Xenu site is to present an alternate view of Scientology. There's no doubt that this is free speech. Yes, it's in Norway but the Internet is pretty seamless about national boundaries. It's written in English. It's got good data, and a point of view. People who want to know more about Scientology and look on Google won't find it. That's wrong.
We're getting the first real demo of a nightmarish scenario, a constitutional one, set up by the DMCA. And it looks like it's going to get much worse before it gets better. See the next section.
A bill was introduced today in the US Senate by Senator Ernest Hollings and five other senators that would rearchitect all computers so that one of the two basic things they do is controlled by Congress.
This is reminiscent of the state legislature that decided that pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter should simply be three, instead of the endlessly fascinating irrational number that it actually is. The law didn't pass, and neither should the Hollings bill.
The Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act would require rearchitecting all computer and software systems, and networks -- including the Internet -- so that every act of copying would be subject to what's known as Digital Rights Management, a brilliant spin on an old idea, copy protection. It failed in the 80s, in the software business and the movie business, because copying is so very basic.
Computers do a lot of copying, all the time, and almost all of it is non-controversial. To insert a new controller into every bit of code and hardware that does copying would be like diverting the Mississippi River to irrigate the Great Plains, another idea the Congress contemplated at one time. You can't do it, it won't happen, there aren't enough dollars or programmers in the world to make it so. Even in these tough economic times, it would be hard to recruit capable programmers to perform an act as utterly idiotic as trying to disable copying on computers.
Now the law may pass, but the future it envisions will not. The government will eventually realize that it would cripple even their own computers, so at some point they must come to their senses, and stop listening to the industry execs (many of whom are in bed with the entertainment industry) and talk directly to some scientists and engineers and find out what's possible.
I suppose it's also possible that we could vote Hollings and his colleagues out of office. That would be something. And politicians could be opportunists now, but only if they know something about computers. Get on the talk shows and strut your stuff. A reasonably informed Congressperson could really shine now.
PS: ISP stands for Internet Service Provider.