By David Lee Rickman II
It should go without saying that I am thankful that ZeroNet helps defeat government censorship. I am also thankful for ZeroNet because it helps to circumnavigate U.S. copyright law.
In no way do I support breaking the law. However, when the law allows vigilantes to be vigilantes then the law stops being a democratic checks-and-balances system and becomes something much different.
Does opposing vigilante law make one also a vigilante? Under the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 I believe the term "vigilante" has become murky. Under the DMCA a person can claim copyright infringement and inflict punishment just by sending an e-mail. It seems there is no longer any need to actually stand in front of a court, prove a valid copyright actually exists and prove the accused party is guilty. The person making the claim isn't even required to know anything about the law the accusation is based on unlike a law enforcement officer.
Of course, it is unfair to infer that all claims of copyright infringement made under the DMCA are false or mistaken. There are however many instances of "copyright trolls" and people who simply don't know the difference between a copyright and a trademark making unjust claims under the DMCA. Under the strict sense of the definition people making false or unjust claims under the DMCA aren't "vigilantes" because the legislation of the DMCA gives those people, right or wrong, the power to enforce copyright law. What is worse is that defenses to copyright infringement such as "fair use" are shaped and determined by case law. By keeping copyright cases out of the eyes of a court the cases that can help define "fair use" or other vagueness of the law are never heard and adjudicated.
Let's say I proposed a law. The law would say that if anybody thought that you owed them money they could send an e-mail to your bank. The person making the claim doesn't have to provide any proof that any money is actually owed such as a contract or an IOU. All the person making the claim has to do for proof that money is owed is sign a statement under the penalty of perjury that the person making the claim has a "good faith belief" that money is owed. The money claimed owed can even be much greater than what you the accused person has in the bank account.
Once the bank receives the e-mail the bank has no choice but hand over the money to the person making the claim from your bank account. If the bank tries to investigate whether the claim is valid then the bank would risk being sued by the person making the claim.
But what if the belief that the money is owed is either mistaken or fraudulent? Well, the proposed law says that you the person accused of owing the money can simply file a counter-claim with the bank. A copy of the counter-claim would be sent to the person making the claim. The counter-claim would contain such things as your full legal name, e-mail address, phone number, resident address, ect. A lot of the kinds of information a person wanting to commit identity theft would want. But we won't worry about any issues of possible identity theft because the law assumes the person making the claim is honest because the person signed their name under a bunch of words promising the claim is true.
Anyway, assuming you don't owe the accusing person any money and you are willing to hand over your personal information to the accuser a counter-claim is filed. Now, a fourteen day countdown begins for the accuser to file a lawsuit to actually prove money is owed. This might be fourteen business days, fourteen calendar days or maybe just six to eight weeks. It really is up for the bank to decide the actual countdown. During this time the accuser gets control of the money and can basically do whatever they want with your money. If no lawsuit is filed then after fourteen days or ten weeks or whatever the money goes back to your bank account. No harm done.
Of course, one could argue that actual harm has been done to you due to a false claim. Money was removed from your control. You got no benefit from the money during those fourteen days or five weeks or whatever. The law would just shrug its shoulders and say it's your fault for being accused in the first place. The money was returned so justice was served.
This is actually the law of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The real difference is money was replaced for an internet posting. Therefore, it would seem that the proposed law would be just as legal.
Now imagine a proposed law that says if an African American anonymously made a website criticizing the KKK; the KKK could order the site to be taken down until the anonymous African American provided their full legal name and address under the penalty of perjury in a counter-claim. Oh, wait. That is literally covered by the DMCA law. No need to imagine such a law because it already exists and is perfectly legal. How could that law possibly go wrong? Any possible downside is outweighed by the fact that accusations and punishments are dealt with outside the eyes of the courts which gives the courts more time to deal with more pressing matters such as dog bites and whatever the latest crime a celebrity needs their wrist slapped for commiting.
That is why I am grateful for ZeroNet. If someone doesn't like this post and wants to file a false copyright claim there is no DMCA designated agent at ZeroNet to threaten with a lawsuit so this post can be taken down. I can anonymously make a website expressing a controversial opinion and as long as someone cares enough to peer the site I can go to bed knowing that when I wake up tomorrow an accusation alone can't bring the site down. You can't say that about a centralized website (after the year 1998).