November 19, 2010

Senate Panel Passes Internet Piracy Legislation

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill on Thursday giving the federal government new powers to crack down on foreign websites that sell counterfeit merchandise and pirated movies, music and books.

The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act passed by the Senate panel by a vote of 19-0, receiving support from both Democrats and Republicans.  Many outside groups, such as the music, movie and TV industries, newspapers, authors and publishers, also support the legislation.

"Few things are more important to the future of the American economy and job creation than protecting our intellectual property," said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who co-sponsored the bill.

"That is why the legislation is supported by both labor and industry, and Democrats and Republicans are standing together."

The legislation would give the Department of Justice the power to seek a court order against the domain name of "rogue" websites engaged in piracy or the sale of counterfeit goods.  The court order would then allow the department to shut down the site by requiring the U.S. registrar to suspend the domain name.

For registries located outside the United States, the Attorney General could pursue the website by requiring U.S.-based Internet service providers, payment processors and ad networks to stop doing business with the site. 

A Reuters reported cited Senate Committee aides who said they worked with companies like MasterCard, PayPal and AT&T to develop the legislation. 

"Rogue websites are essentially digital stores selling illegal and sometimes dangerous products," Leahy said.

"If they existed in the physical world, the store would be shuttered immediately and the proprietors would be arrested."

"We cannot excuse the behavior because it happens online and the owners operate overseas," he said.

"The Internet needs to be free -- not lawless."

Another co-sponsor of the bill, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), said that while the Internet is "the glue of international commerce in today's global economy," it has also become "a tool for online thieves to sell counterfeit and pirated goods, making hundreds of millions of dollars off of stolen American intellectual property."

Some digital rights groups and others are critical of the legislation, calling it an "Internet censorship" bill.

"I would hope legislation like this that undermines our trade and diplomatic agenda would get a hearing before a full Senate or House vote," said a spokeswoman for the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA).

"That way Congress could hear from the civil libertarians, tech companies and Internet engineers concerned this could break the Internet in the name of copyright enforcement."

"The problem with the U.S. expanding Internet censorship like this is that other nations will adopt similar practices of government blacklists and taking down domains -- only for less noble purposes."

The Senate panel modified the bill to address some of the concerns voiced by critics.  For instance, one provision was struck out that would have allowed the Justice Department to publish a "blacklist" of domain names that provide access to websites advertising counterfeit or pirated goods, even if it did not seek a court order against them.


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