Two events this week produced some serious cognitive dissonance. First, Congressional leaders sheepishly announced that they were withdrawing (at least for the time being) two bills heavily backed by the entertainment industry — the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House – in the wake of vocal online citizen protests (and, more significantly, coordinated opposition from the powerful Silicon Valley industry). Critics insisted that these bills were dangerous because they empowered the U.S. Government, based on mere accusations of piracy and copyright infringement, to shut down websites without any real due process. But just as the celebrations began over the saving of Internet Freedom, something else happened: the U.S. Justice Department not only indicted the owners of one of the world’s largest websites, the file-sharing site Megaupload, but also seized and shut down that site, and also seized or froze millions of dollars of its assets — all based on the unproved accusations, set forth in an indictment, that the site deliberately aided copyright infringement.
In other words, many SOPA opponents were confused and even shocked when they learned that the very power they feared the most in that bill — the power of the U.S. Government to seize and shut down websites based solely on accusations, with no trial — is a power the U.S. Government already possesses and, obviously, is willing and able to exercise even against the world’s largest sites (they have this power thanks to the the 2008 PRO-IP Act pushed by the same industry servants in Congress behind SOPA as well as by forfeiture laws used to seize the property of accused-but-not-convicted drug dealers). This all reminded me quite a bit of the shock and outrage that arose last month over the fact that Barack Obama signed into law a bill (the NDAA) vesting him with the power to militarily detain people without charges, even though, as I pointed out the very first time I wrote about that bill, indefinite detention is already a power the U.S. Government under both Bush and Obama has seized and routinely and aggressively exercises.
I’m not minimizing the importance of either fight: it’s true that SOPA (like the NDAA) would codify these radical powers further and even expand them beyond what the U.S. Government already wields (regarding SOPA’s unique provisions, see Julian Sanchez’s typically thorough analysis). But the defining power that had everyone so up in arms about SOPA — shutting down websites with no trial — is one that already exists in quite a robust form, as any thwarted visitors to Megaupload will discover. There are two points worth making about all of this:
(1) It’s wildly under-appreciated how unrestrained is the Government’s power to do what it wants, and how little effect these debates over various proposed laws have on that power. Contrary to how it was portrayed, the Obama administration’s threatened veto of the NDAA rested largely on the assertion that they did not need a law vesting them with indefinite detention powers because they already have full power to detain people without a trial: not because any actual law expressly vested that power, but because the Bush and Obama DOJs both claimed the 2001 AUMF silently (“implicitly”) authorized it and deferential courts have largely acquiesced to that claim. Thus, Obama argued about indefinite detention in his NDAA veto threat that “the authorities codified in this section already exist” and therefore “the Administration does not believe codification is necessary,” and in his Signing Statement the President similarly asserted that “the executive branch already has the authority to detain in military custody” accused Terrorists “and as Commander in Chief I have directed the military to do so where appropriate.” In other words: we don’t need any law expressly stating that we can imprison people without charges: we do it when we want without that law.
That’s more or less what happened with the SOPA fight. It’s true that website-seizures-without-trials are not quite as lawless as indefinite detentions, since there are actual statutes conferring this power. But it nonetheless sends a very clear message when citizens celebrate a rare victory in denying the Government a power it seeks — the power to shut down websites without a trial — only for the Government to turn around the very next day and shut down one of the world’s largest and best-known sites. Whether intended or not, the message is unmistakable: Congratulations, citizens, on your cute little “democracy” victory in denying us the power to shut down websites without a trial: we’re now going to shut down one of your most popular websites without a trial.
(2) The U.S. really is a society that simply no longer believes in due process: once the defining feature of American freedom that is now scorned as some sort of fringe, radical, academic doctrine. That is not hyperbole. Supporters of both political parties endorse, or at least tolerate, all manner of government punishment without so much as the pretense of a trial, based solely on government accusation: imprisonment for life, renditions to other countries, even assassinations of their fellow citizens. Simply uttering the word Terrorist, without proving it, is sufficient. And now here is Megaupload being completely destroyed — its website shuttered, its assets seized, ongoing business rendered impossible — based solely on the unproven accusation of Piracy.
It’s true, as Sanchez observes, that “the owners of Megaupload don’t seem like particularly sympathetic characters,” but he also details that there are difficult and weighty issues that would have to be resolved to prove they engaged in criminal conduct. Megaupload obviously contains numerous infringing videos, but so does YouTube, yet both sites also entail numerous legal activities as well. As Sanchez put it: “most people, presumably, recognize that shutting down YouTube in order to disable access to those videos would not be worth the enormous cost to protected speech.” The Indictment is a classic one-side-of-the-story document; even the most mediocre lawyers can paint any picture they want when unchallenged. That’s why the government is not supposed to dole out punishments based on accusatory instruments, but only after those accusations are proved in an adversarial proceeding.
Whatever else is true, those issues should be decided upon a full trial in a court of law, not by government decree. Especially when it comes to Draconian government punishments — destroying businesses, shutting down websites, imprisoning people for life, assassinating them — what distinguishes a tyrannical society from a free one is whether the government is first required to prove guilt in a fair, adversarial proceeding. This is a precept Americans were once taught about why their country was superior, was reflexively understood, and was enshrined as the core political principle: “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It’s simply not a principle that is believed in any longer, and therefore is not remotely observed.
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On a different note: both Jeffrey Goldberg and David Bernstein have posts about my arguments on the smearing of CAP that rest on the same premise: namely, that to point out that someone has “dual loyalties” is an accusation of disloyalty to their own country or even worse. As I explain here, that premise is false. There’s nothing inherently wrong with dual loyalties: those are common among many groups, especially in a country of immigrants, and are typically benign. What’s menacing is to smear those who discuss its existence and the way in which it influences our politics. For more on this, see The Atlantic‘s Robert Wright: “How to Smear a Washington Think Tank.”