House Judiciary Committee examines Stop Online Piracy Act

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing yesterday on the Stop Online Piracy Act – known as SOPA. The stated purpose of this proposed federal legislation is “to promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property.” The target of the legislation is foreign-based websites that violate copyright and traffic in pirated goods.

Introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith, R–Tex., on Oct. 26, SOPA empowers the U.S. attorney general to seek a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction or an injunction against any foreign-based websites that are infringing on copyrighted material. It also requires Internet service providers to take steps to prevent their users from accessing these infringing sites. And it says Internet search engines, “payment network providers” and “Internet advertising services” must quit doing business with these sites.

Such measures would likely dry up the economic incentives and silence these foreign infringing sites. In his introductory remarks, Smith, who is also chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, emphasized the importance of SOPA to protect U.S. copyrights from rogue foreign websites.

“The problem of rogue websites is real, immediate and widespread,” he said. “It harms all sectors of the economy.”

Maria Palante, U.S. register of copyrights, supports SOPA, a bill she describes as “measured.” In her prepared statement for the hearing, she said that the problem of online piracy “requires all key members of the online ecosystem, including service providers, search engines, payment processors, and advertising networks, to play a role in protecting copyright interests — an approach I endorse. Combating online infringement requires focus and commitment. It should be obvious that we cannot have intermediaries working at cross-purposes.”

But many technology companies, law professors and civil liberties groups oppose SOPA. Some contend that it would chill online innovation and may infringe on freedom of speech.

Katherine Oyama, copyright counsel for Google, expressed concerns about the bill at the hearing in her prepared statement. “Unfortunately, we cannot support the bill as written, as it would expose law-abiding U.S. Internet and technology companies to new uncertain liabilities, private rights of action, and technology mandates that could require monitoring of web sites and social media. Moreover, we are concerned that the bill sets a precedent in favor of Internet censorship and could jeopardize our nation’s cybersecurity.”

The American Civil Liberties Union expressed similar concerns in a letter to Smith. “The bill is a well intentioned effort to reduce the infringement of copyrighted material online,” the letter reads. “We share the sponsors’ goal in that regard. As introduced, however, the bill is severely flawed and will result in the takedown of large amounts of non-infringing content from the internet in contravention of the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution.”

The ACLU makes the point that many of the Internet service providers, payment-network providers and Internet advertising sites will remove much non-infringing material in order to avoid trouble with the law. In other words, the ACLU says the measure will restrict valid online information.

The Center for Democracy and Technology expressed similar concerns in its letter to Smith. “The bill would set an irreversible precedent that encourages the fracturing of the Internet, undermines freedom of expression worldwide, and has numerous other unintended and harmful consequences.”

It seems clear that SOPA — if it passes Congress — would face serious legal challenges from groups adamantly opposed to the measure.

Tags: , , , , , , ,