House members unveil Stop Online Piracy Act

Members of the House Judiciary Committee unveiled a bipartisan bill on Wednesday that would significantly expand the federal government's authority to go after websites that provide access to pirated or counterfeit content.

The Stop Online Piracy Act would empower the Justice Department to seek injunctions against foreign websites that traffic in pirated goods or content. But a controversial provision would also allow the government and rights holders to demand that third parties, such as payment processors and online ad networks, cut ties with sites deemed rogue.

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"As leading brands of the Internet, we strongly oppose offshore 'rogue' websites and share policymakers' goal of combating online infringement of copyrights and trademarks. However, we do not believe that the solution lies in regulating the Internet and comprising its stability and security," said Markham Erickson, executive director of NetCoalition, which includes Google, Yahoo and Bloomberg.

Tech firms such have indicated opposition to the proposed regulation, which would be a drastic departure to the current notice-and-take-down system used for online copyright enforcement. Erickson argued the resulting uncertainty would disrupt one of the lone bright sports in the troubled U.S. economy.

But the legislation has already drawn strong support from the entertainment and retail industries ahead of its release; the bill borrows heavily from the PROTECT IP Act that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year. That bill was placed on hold by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who argues it would infringe on free speech.

“Rogue websites that steal and sell American innovations have operated with impunity. The online thieves who run these foreign websites are out of the reach of U.S. law enforcement agencies and profit from selling pirated goods without any legal consequences," said House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who introduced the bill with ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.), IP subcommittee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.).

“The Stop Online Piracy Act helps stop the flow of revenue to rogue websites and ensures that the profits from American innovations go to American innovators," Smith added.

Lobbying on the issue has been particularly fierce, with many content industries viewing the legislation as vital to protecting their long-term viability. The lobbying shops representing the entertainment industry in Washington have made cracking down on digital piracy their top priority in recent years.

The groups are adamant that without greater protections against rampant piracy on the Internet, their industries face certain demise. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been particularly active in building support for the bill.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to those who take advantage of U.S. innovators and chip away at the American workforce,” said Chamber President and CEO Thomas Donohue.

“While rogue sites pose a unique set of challenges, legislation like the Stop Online Piracy Act introduced today offer clear, tailored enforcement tools to effectively root them out."

But unlike the patent reform legislation, which was backed by a similar political alliance between the two Judiciary committees, the opposition in this instance is similarly broad and well-funded.

In addition to several prominent opponents in Silicon Valley that represent both the current and future giants of e-commerce, a number of public-interest organizations and free-speech advocates have rallied opposition to the bill. The coalition is diverse enough to encompass both the Tea Party Patriots and the liberal group Demand Progress.

"The new House legislation (HR 3271) is an unwarranted expansion of government power to protect one special interest," said Public Knowledge President and co-founder Gigi Sohn.

"At a time when Congress and the Obama Administration are trying to cut back on sweeping, overbroad regulation, we are disappointed that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and his co-sponsors have chosen this means of establishing a vast new regulatory regime over the Internet."

Which side wins the debate over whether the bill will help protect jobs in creative industries or jeopardize the growth of small Web firms will ultimately dictate its success, since, as Conyers put it, "millions of American jobs hang in the balance."