Lawmakers put onus on Google

Google and other search providers should do more to help fight rampant piracy and intellectual property theft online, according to members of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

As expected, the full committee hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Act focused on the problem of digital piracy and the cost to the economy. Lawmakers and witnesses designated digital theft and counterfeiting as dire threats that cost billions of dollars every year. Google in particular came under harsh criticism, as lawmakers contend the firm doesn’t do enough to remove pirated content from its search results.

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The legislation would allow the government or copyright holders to force search engines and payment processors to block foreign websites deemed rogue or dedicated to copyright infringement. But a diverse and growing coalition of opposition headlined by Web giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter argue the bill would undermine the current structure of the Web and raise serious concerns about censorship.

Ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.) used his opening statement to cite an entertainment industry study that found up to quarter of all Internet traffic stems from copyright infringement, echoing a common refrain that the status quo is unacceptable.

“To those that say that a bill to stop online theft will break the Internet, I would like to point out that if one-quarter of Internet traffic is dedicated to crime, the Internet already seems rather defunct,” Conyers said. “Laws govern the brick and mortar world, and the Internet can be no different.”

Opponents of the legislation, which include free-speech advocates and conservatives worried about government overreach, feared the hearing would be one-sided, as five out of the six witnesses commented favorably on the bill. Several lawmakers voiced concerns about the legislation, but most appeared to support the measure as drafted, with only Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) expressing strong objections.

The contentious tone of the recent debate could have cost opponents some support, as several lawmakers dismissed out of hand claims the bill would “break the Internet” or undermine the digital economy. But Lofgren argued not all of the criticism is hyperbole and said lawmakers should be engaging critics on the substance of their concerns rather than impugning their motives. She also decried the lack of balance on the witness panel.

Issa said the rush to hold the hearing was based on the flawed assumption that the bipartisan bill would quickly become law and said the sponsors didn’t want to hear from opponents, but must now accept that there is real opposition to their bill.

“What they’re realizing is there are so many unintended consequences that they can’t just use Google as a piñata and bash on it here,” he said, citing the broad coalition of opposition encompassing the tech industry, the left and the right.

“I don’t believe this bill has any chance on the House floor,” Issa added when asked about the odds of the bill moving forward after passing the Judiciary Committee. “I think it’s way too extreme, it infringes on too many areas that our leadership will know is simply too dangerous to do in its current form.”

The lone voice of dissent on the witness panel came from Google policy counsel Katherine Oyama, who emphasized the search giant already removes links to infringing sites under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Oyama referred to the definition of rogue sites and other terms in the bill as vague and overly broad, and argued the bill as written includes “harsh and arbitrary sanctions without due process.”

Oyama also exhorted the committee to focus its enforcement efforts on cutting off sources of revenue to infringing sites such as advertising networks and payment processors, pointing to the government’s isolation of the online whistleblower site WikiLeaks as an example of the efficacy of such an approach.

She said Google has worked with the committee over the last six months to create an effective solution for doing so, which came as news to several lawmakers and entertainment industry groups that have pressed Google to offer its own solution to the problem of online piracy.

Oyama’s assurances of how seriously Google takes the issue of online piracy were not enough to appease Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who appeared skeptical as he expressed hope the search giant would live up to its pledge.

“You’ve spoken a lot of the right words today; I only hope your company and others will practice what you preach,” Smith said, adding that many stakeholders view the current DMCA enforcement regime as insufficient.

Issa said he believes the bill can’t be fixed, and argued it doesn’t use the best tools for settling disputes regarding foreign sites. He said such cases would be best addressed by the U.S. International Trade Commission and plans to offer bipartisan legislation that creates a court of continued jurisdiction to handle such copyright claims after the Thanksgiving break.