Bono's Not So Beautiful Day

When a celebrity speaks about a cause of significant importance a lot of us listen. When that celebrity has the ability to make a real impact on that cause, we listen even more closely. And so is the case as it relates to U2's Bono, a respected human rights advocate and now a New York Times "contributing columnist."

Given the power of Bono's platform and his voice, it's all the more distressing when he urges U.S. Internet service providers to adopt Chinese government tactics in order to combat illegal file sharing.

In his most recent column, Bono brushes aside the (appropriate) claim made by American ISPs that they don't dig into the contents of their subscribers' Internet usage with this line:

[W]e know from America's noble effort to stop child pornography, not to mention China's ignoble effort to suppress online dissent, that it's perfectly possible to track content.

Bono is wrong on this point. I don't think American ISPs do not "track content" of users' Web streams to filter or block child pornography. They are taking very important steps to fight child pornography hosted on their systems, but they have not placed themselves into the position of China-like gatekeepers, with the power to monitor and censor all things Internet.

Turning ISPs into a de facto Internet police force is far more problematic than Bono appears to understand. First, it simply may not work. If ISPs start snooping all their customers' traffic, customers may respond by encrypting that traffic -- particularly when sharing copyrighted files. Think that is too difficult for most customers? Nope, encryption could be easily built into file-sharing programs, making it effort-free for users.

Second, putting Bono's idea in action would require giving ISPs a lot more centralized control over Internet communications. In this country, ISPs do not control what their users send to the Internet any more than a phone company controls the topics of someone's phone call. Does the U.S. really want to move in the direction of the Chinese model of always-on surveillance? Once we begin to break into all Web traffic to search for copyright violations, evaluating content for its "decency" or appropriateness for children, then analyzing each user's search habits to determine buying habits and government surveillance without lawful process (remember the NSA warrantless wiretapping) will follow close behind.

The U.S. has the most vibrant, free and innovative Internet because we don't have gatekeepers in the middle of the network. ISPs don't act as gatekeepers because we don't put them in the position of content police and generally don't hold them liable for the content that transverses their networks. Flipping this paradigm is not just a threat to free expression and privacy at home, it gives aid and comfort to China and authoritarian regimes worldwide; we can't make much headway in pressing them to let go of the reigns when we ourselves are clamping down at home.

Let me be clear about one thing: copyright laws need to be vigorously enforced. But asking ISPs to do that job is like having Edge sing opera--a bad idea that would be a disaster for everyone involved.