An article posted this week on the Volokh Conspiracy, a legally-minded blog hosted under the domain of the Washington Post, calls into question the validity of protecting Internet users from illicit and fraudulent activity through ICANN.

(Without getting into the nitty gritty of everything it does, ICANN is the not-for-profit organization tasked with various aspects of maintaining operational stability of the Internet.)

ICANN Logo

ICANN Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leaving aside for a second the many questions over whether ICANN is the right organization to undertake the activities it is tasked with, the broader notion that underlies this piece continues to crop up: evil labels and studios want to “police the Internet” for their own nefarious ends.

Because this argument seems to be repeated like a mantra, so must the rebuttal be: piracy affects everyone, from the biggest company to the smallest independent creator.

Trying to protect intellectual property at any point on that spectrum is not in any way evil or “insidious,” as articles like this frequently claim, with little justification.

As we have evolved from the early days online, where access was limited and regulation lagged behind technology, laws have grown up around the Internet to protect its users in all manner of ways. In much the same way as copyright law evolved to protect ideas and encourage creativity, rights holders and creative advocates have fought to ensure digital services play by the same rules, often by helping to extend and shape existing laws for the online environment. Legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, even with its flaws and increasingly outdated approach, helps to give creative individuals and companies some security against online infringement of their work.

The drive to have ICANN provide similar protections is motivated by the same ends, regardless of its opponents’ tendency towards scare mongering and hyperbole.

Creative works like movies, music, books, images and photographs are all protected by U.S. copyright law, online and off. When sites choose to disregard this law they should be pursued, warned, and if necessary prosecuted as far as the law allows. As part of its remit to maintain a stable and trusted online environment, ICANN is as legitimate a player to engage in upholding the law as are internet service providers and domain registrars.

To facilitate commerce and creativity online, it’s vital that intellectual property is valued and infringement curbed, at least on platforms that purport to be legitimate and do business across official channels.. The argument can certainly be made that policing infringement outside of those channels should be left to other authorities, but everyone in the established digital supply chain has a role to play in reassuring users, both content creators and those who consume it, that they are helping to maintain a stable, legal online environment.

The Internet can and should be used to drive free expression, innovation, and all of the other benefits that our connected world facilitates. But that doesn’t exempt our online activities from the laws that govern our actions offline. By extension, nor should it prevent those who engage in fraud, violate privacy, or exploit the intellectual property of others being held accountable, simply because they operate under the cloak of a distant connection.

It’s easy to see why these arguments to protect the nebulous ideals of an open Internet feel backwards to creators. From their perspective, the digital world has been stealing their ideas and hard work for years, with only the slightest support to protect what is being taken. The vague ideas employed to rationalize piracy are uncomfortably similar to those parroted when an open Internet is advocated: information wants to be free, and regulation stifles innovation.

As the article sums up, those fears are explicitly stated:

“I fear that this subtler, and more insidious, threat to free expression on the Internet is not getting the attention it deserves.”

For some reason, the very real and damaging threat of piracy and the erosion of intellectual property rights are often brushed aside, even attributed shady motives, while the technology lobby, backed by far more sprawling corporate behemoths like Google, expect a free pass to shape the online environment as they see fit.

At the very least, initiatives like the one to involve ICANN in curbing illicit online practices should be seen as an attempt to provide balance and represent the rights of those whose voice all too often goes unheard.