GOP's Issa: Effort to 'grease the skids' for online piracy bill has failed

The public backlash to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) has stopped the bill dead in its tracks despite an effort to "grease the skids” for passage, according to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

Issa said original co-sponsors of the legislation are wavering in their support after hearing more this week about the bill’s impact on the Internet.

Issa first predicted the bill would not pass the House during a Wednesday hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. The largely one-sided hearing drew howls of protest from websites like Tumblr and Reddit, which directed their users to contact lawmakers and urge them to oppose the bill.

“This was intended to be the hearing that greased the skids for this bill moving forward,” Issa told The Hill during an interview Friday. “I think the proponents misjudged the flaws that were in their bill.”

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The controversial legislation would allow copyright holders and the government to demand search engines, online advertisers and social networks remove links to foreign websites deemed dedicated to online piracy.

The measure has strong support from business groups and the entertainment industry, but is fiercely opposed by Web companies, which have raised concerns about censorship.

Issa said the legislation is beyond repair and must be rewritten from scratch to focus on foreign websites that infringe on copyrights.

“We need a boat. We’ve got planks of wood,” Issa said. “I didn’t like the way that [legislation] was being assembled. I felt it had to be stopped so we could begin assembling the right tools for the mission.”

He said the bill’s biggest flaw is that it’s focused on “low-hanging fruit” — domestic websites with a small amount of pirated content on their servers. Issa said forcing those firms to block foreign sites would just open the door for new offshore search engines outside of the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.

“We can’t do denial of service, it’s just not going to work on a mass basis,” Issa said. “We can’t stop foreign websites and search engines from doing their jobs.”

Issa said the right tools for fighting copyright infringement include a court of continued jurisdiction similar in concept to the U.S. International Trade Commission. He plans to offer his own bipartisan legislation to address the issue after Thanksgiving and expressed confidence the movie industry and other SOPA supporters would show support if the bill helps address the roughly 100 sites identified as major sources of piracy.

Issa spoke to the SOPA’s chief sponsor, Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), after Wednesday’s hearing and said Smith acknowledged he hadn’t considered the possibility of a special court dedicated to handling online copyright claims administratively rather than through a judicial proceeding.

Issa said the system would resemble the current Digital Millennium Copyright Act notice-and-takedown system but respond more quickly at a lower cost for small firms and copyright holders.

“It may be the beginning of bringing our bills together,” Issa said. “Slowing this bill down to get it right has always been the goal.”

He emphasized that any legislative solution would have to remain flexible in order to adapt to changes in technology.

“Any rule you write has to assume innovation will make it obsolete quickly,” Issa said. “You have to write a flexible system of administering the law in an ever-changing world.”

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Issa argued any legislation should be focused on rogue foreign websites, not the incidental violations on sites where the vast majority of content is legal. He said companies like Facebook, eBay and Google all have very good records working to reduce piracy and unfair use of copyrighted content.

Issa echoed Google’s position from the hearing that focusing on sources of revenue like credit card companies and online advertising networks would be the most effective way to target online piracy.

“What we have to ask from Google is very different than from Visa and MasterCard,” Issa said. “Following the money is extremely important. People seldom give away anything on the Web.”

Issa acknowledged the irony of his defending Google after criticizing the firm’s close ties to the Obama administration over the reported use of personal Gmail accounts by White House staffers for official business.

“There are no sacred cows in our business. You’re my friend one day and you’re an example of wrongdoing the next,” Issa said. “And if I’m doing my job right, I call ’em the way I see ’em.”

Issa said Google was forced to testify at Wednesday’s hearing, while other tech groups were denied the opportunity. Several lawmakers took aim at the search giant on Friday, arguing Google’s search results provide rogue websites with a lifeline for traffic and revenue.

“They had plenty of good witnesses and they took only one that wasn’t there by choice,” Issa said. “That’s my definition of a piñata.”