Liberal and libertarian groups have found common ground in their mutual dislike of a bill introduced by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT) that would authorize the Department of Justice to seize or block Web sites suspected of illegally distributing copyrighted materials.
Senate Bill 968, “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011,” also called the Protect IP Act of 2011—or PIPA—was introduced by Leahy and cosponsored by 13 additional senators on May 12. PIPA was approved unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 26.
Both the Washington, D.C.-based liberal political action group Public Knowledge and the San Francisco, California-based libertarian think tank Electronic Frontier Foundation have expressed opposition to the bill.
Revision of COICA
PIPA is a reworking of the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (S-3804), which was introduced by Leahy in September 2010, but failed to emerge from the Judicial Committee. Similar to COICA, PIPA would grant authority to the U.S. Attorney General to “suspend operation of, and lock, the domain name” of any Web site the DOJ deems to be infringing on copyrights. Should the location of the Web site’s hosting server exist overseas, the DOJ could order the site blocked through the Domain Name System.
Public Knowledge, however, argues the Digital Millennium Copyright Act already provides legal mechanisms to shut down copyright violating sites. On its Web site, PK argues PIPA “would expand copyright enforcement to disabling entire Web sites that are considered to be ‘dedicated to infringing activity’ in a broad enough manner that free speech would be negatively impacted.”
PK also notes PIPA allows government agencies to interfere with the Domain Name System, which it asserts will establish a precedent other countries will surely follow.
“If PIPA were to become law, there is a long list of reasons why it would threaten the functioning, freedom, and economic potential of the Internet,” the organization wrote in an email on May 26.
Abigail Phillips, Electronic Frontier Foundation’s senior staff attorney, takes issue with PIPA’s authorizing seizures of information location tools, which Phillips says is a term employed in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to reference search engines.
“There’s no guarantee we wouldn’t see efforts to expand the definition in actions under this bill,” she wrote in an EFF blog post. “But in any case, requiring search engines to remove links to an entire Web site raises serious First Amendment concerns considering the lawful expression that may be hosted on the same domain.”
Search Engines, Social Networks
Phillips notes PIPA expands the categories of third-party providers subject to court orders under COICA. She said PIPA could be used to force “interactive computer services” and “servers of sponsored links” to refrain from linking to Web sites suspected of infringing copyright. Not only does this present a threat to search engines such as Bing, said Phillips, “but also sites like Facebook, Twitter, and potentially any service or Web page where a URL might turn up.”
Phillips says PIPA improves on COICA in a small way by requiring Internet Protocol owners or government agencies to identify individuals or entities suspected of copyright infringement before seeking enforcement against the entire domain name. “The effort to inject a little due process into the mix is a good step, but it falls far short of the mark given the potential implications of these actions for online speech,” she said.
“We’re still chewing through the issues,” said Phillips. “But on balance, it’s clear PROTECT IP is no improvement on COICA.”
Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of Infotech & Telecom News.
“Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (VT), introduced May 12, 2011: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c112:S.+968
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
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Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO)
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Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
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