Online copyright bills raise concernsBy TOM BRUNE
November 27, 2011
WASHINGTON -- The Internet once again has become the center of a battle that pits Hollywood against Silicon Valley as lawmakers propose tougher measures to crack down on online piracy of movies, music and books, as well as sales of counterfeit products.
Bills introduced in the Senate and House this year to shut down or block foreign "rogue websites" have stirred passions and splintered the usual partisan and ideological gridlock in a debate over how to enforce copyright laws while protecting First Amendment rights and entrepreneurial ventures.
The problem Congress seeks to address comes down to money: $135 billion a year lost by Hollywood studios, record labels and publishing houses, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Rogue websites pose a threat that is "real, immediate and widespread. It harms all sectors of the economy, and its scope is staggering," Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said at a recent hearing.
"One recent survey found that nearly one-quarter of global Internet traffic infringes on copyrights," said Smith, sponsor of the House bill.
Yet Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) said the bill raises concerns. "What comes to mind is that this legislation may be overly broad, that it too easily circumvents Internet users and it is inherently incompatible with the way the Internet actually works," she said.
Under the bill, prosecutors could get court orders to force U.S. service providers, search engines, payment processors and ad networks to stop business with or block foreign websites accused of infringing on copyrights.
The bill also provides copyright holders a two-step process to go after websites they believe are pirating their work, and to hold domains responsible if the foreign website's owners can't be found.
The bill is backed by a coalition that includes the Motion Picture Association of America, music industry groups, artists and union members.
But it also has stirred a passionate opposition led by Google, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo in a coalition that includes libertarians, consumer advocates and business groups.
Google charged the bill shifts responsibility for policing copyrights to providers and search engines.
More important, said David Sohn of the Center on Democracy and Technology, the "definitions of what constitutes a bad site in the bill are so broad they could easily sweep in general-purpose websites."
Websites with just one page or blog with copy infringement could be shut down and face a torrent of actions by copyright holders, he said. The uncertainty could inhibit new start-ups.
A former National Security Agency counsel and a Brookings Institution expert said a section of the bill aimed at blocking sites could result in weakened cybersecurity.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has reported out its bill. The House panel plans to vote on the bill next month.
New York Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have co-sponsored the Senate bill. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) is a co-sponsor of the House version. The other four Long Island House members said they are undecided.
Cablevision, the owner of Newsday, has lobbyists who report they might work on the issue. Cablevision spokesman Jim Maiella declined to comment on the legislation.