Internet piracy bill splits technology, entertainment industries

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 11, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Legislation to thwart Internet piracy is dividing Capitol Hill lawmakers and has the entertainment industry facing off against the technology industry. At least one major social media website is planning a daylong blackout next week to protest the bill.

The Stop Online Piracy Act, authored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, would give the government the authority to order Internet providers to block access to foreign websites that post copyrighted content without permission and bar U.S advertisers and payment processors from doing business with them.

The Justice Department could go to court to make such sites disappear from Americans' computer screens, meaning, for example, that links from a Google search or a Facebook page might not work.

Members of both major parties are co-sponsoring the bill, but some lawmakers worry that the provisions go too far and wouldn't be effective anyway.

The act's supporters include major movie studios, recording studios, book publishers, broadcast and cable networks and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The bill has 31 congressional co-sponsors of both parties, and a companion bill in the Senate called the Protect IP Act has 40 co-sponsors.

"The bill's broad bipartisan support shows Congress' commitment to combating rogue sites and ensuring that profits go to American innovators, not criminals who steal our products and damage our economy," Smith said in a statement.

The bill's opponents, who include technology companies, civil liberties groups and even tea party activists, call it a censorship tool that would upend the Internet's structure while doing little to prevent piracy because people could find ways to get around it.

Some even say it's an act worthy of the world's most repressive regimes.

"I don't want to sound alarmist, but I think you can look to countries like China and Iran," said Julie Samuels, an intellectual property lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which promotes freedom of speech. "The list of countries that do this is a list of countries the United States does not want to be on."

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has scheduled a hearing for next Wednesday in which cybersecurity experts and technology entrepreneurs will testify.

"An open Internet is crucial to American job creation, government operations and the daily routines of Americans from all walks of life," Issa said in a statement. "The public deserves a full discussion about the consequences of changing the way Americans access information and communicate on the Internet today."

Reddit.com, a social media news site that calls itself the "front page of the Internet," will take down its site for 12 hours on the day of the hearing — at which Reddit's co-founder, Alexis Ohanian, will testify — to protest the bill.

Technology blogs were ablaze this week with speculation that other major players, such as Facebook and Google, might make similar moves to get lawmakers' attention.

Smith said in a statement that his bill wouldn't censor Reddit and he called the blackout "a publicity stunt."

Technology companies say they support the goal of ending piracy but that the bill has unintended consequences.

In a letter to Smith and other key lawmakers in November, companies including AOL, eBay, Yahoo, Facebook, Google and Twitter warned that the legislation as written "would expose law-abiding U.S. Internet and technology companies to new uncertain liabilities."

"We are concerned that these measures pose a serious risk to our industry's continued track record of innovation and job creation, as well as to our nation's cybersecurity," they wrote.

Cybersecurity experts say the blocking provision at the heart of the bill is ineffective.

Stewart Baker, a former assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, said anyone could go around the provision simply by using an Internet server that wasn't based in the U.S.

"This whole blocking mechanism works only as long as you don't go to some other country for your address," he said. "It's trivially easy to evade the blocking order."

Baker, who's testifying on the cybersecurity implications of the bill at next week's hearing, said the entertainment industry had many supporters on Capitol Hill but that the pushback against its anti-piracy efforts had created unlikely alliances.

"We can all thank Hollywood for bringing Darrell Issa and Nancy Pelosi together," Baker said.

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