Senate Judiciary approves online copyright bill to shutter 'rogue' sites

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a controversial bipartisan bill on Thursday that gives the Department of Justice more power to shut down websites that sell counterfeit or pirated goods.

“Rogue websites are essentially digital stores selling illegal and sometimes dangerous products. If they existed in the physical world, the store would be shuttered immediately and the proprietors would be arrested,” said Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “We cannot excuse the behavior because it happens online and the owners operate overseas.”

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The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act was introduced in September by Leahy and ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah); it was praised by business and entertainment industry groups, including the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Recording Industry Association of America, all of which have pushed for the bill's passage.

“This legislation that garnered unanimous support from Democrats and Republicans alike in the Judiciary Committee will help in our continued fight against online piracy and counterfeiting," Hatch said. "Allowing industry stakeholders and law enforcement officials to better coordinate their efforts will allow us to better target those who are profiting from this illegal and costly activity.”

The bill would create an expedited process for the Justice Department to shut down a website or domain name found to be trafficking pirated movies, goods or music. But privacy advocates including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology have slammed the bill, claiming it gives Justice too much power and amounts to government censorship of the Internet.

“We are disappointed that the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning chose to disregard the concerns of public-interest groups, Internet engineers, Internet companies, human-rights groups and law professors in approving a bill that could do great harm to the public and to the Internet," said Gigi Sohn, president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge. “We look forward to working with the Committee next year to craft a more narrowly tailored bill that deals with the question of rogue Web sites.”

Industry groups such as the Consumer Electronics Association and library associations have also voiced opposition to the bill, which they claim is overly broad and gives the attorney general unchecked authority to act against websites they deem to be dedicated to copyright infringements. Opponents also argue that, if passed, the bill's provisions for blocking servers based in other countries may prompt those nations to respond in kind against U.S. websites.

Specifically, the bill would authorize Justice to file an in rem civil action against domain names trafficking in infringing material. Justice would have to show the site's "substantial and repeated role in online piracy and counterfeiting" to obtain a court order and would be required to publish notice of the action promptly after filing in court. There are also safeguards that allow the site or domain owner to petition to have the order lifted.

"As Sen. Leahy has noted, these are the ‘worst of the worst’ online websites," said MPAA President Bob Pisano. "The operators of these sites knowingly break the law, harm the American economy, deprive American intellectual property owners of their rights, cost American jobs and, in the case of counterfeit prescription drugs, potentially threaten the health and welfare of American consumers."

"Rogue websites — those dedicated to selling counterfeit goods and/or pirating copyrighted materials—have no place in the legitimate online market," said David Hirschmann, president of the Chamber's Global Intellectual Property Center. “Criminals who operate these sites are profiting from others’ innovation and creativity. Their illegal activities cost the American economy billions of dollars and deprive creators of their livelihood."