Controversial provision to block websites dropped from online piracy bill

In a major concession to critics of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said Friday he will drop a controversial provision that would have required Internet providers to block infringing websites.

“After consultation with industry groups across the country, I feel we should remove Domain Name System blocking from the Stop Online Piracy Act so that the committee can further examine the issues surrounding this provision," Smith said in a statement. "We will continue to look for ways to ensure that foreign websites cannot sell and distribute illegal content to U.S. consumers."

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SOPA is designed to block foreign websites that offer illegal copies of music, movies and TV shows with impunity. Even without the provision allowing sites to be blocked, the bill would empower the Justice Department and copyright holders to demand that search engines delete links to sites “dedicated” to copyright infringement. Ad networks and payment processors would be prohibited from doing business with the sites.

The bill has sparked a backlash from Internet freedom advocates and Web companies, including Google, Yahoo and Facebook, who say it would stifle innovation and suppress free speech.  

The provision that would have required Internet providers to block infringing websites was one of the most controversial aspects of the bill. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt compared the provision to how China censors political speech online.

In his statement, Smith emphasized that his bill targets foreign websites.

“Current law protects the rights of American innovators by prohibiting the illegal sale and distribution of their products by domestic websites," he said. "But there is no equivalent protection for American companies from foreign online criminals who steal and sell American goods to consumers around the world. Congress must address the widespread problem of online theft of America’s technology and products from foreign thieves." 

The move by Smith follows Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyAvalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign America isn't ready to let Sessions off his leash Your tax dollars fund Afghan child rape MORE's (D-Vt.) announcement on Thursday that he is open to changes to the site-blocking provision in the Senate version of the bill, the Protect IP Act.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocratic senator predicts Franken will resign Thursday Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Lobbying world MORE (D-Ore.), one of the most outspoken opponents of the legislation, called Leahy's announcement "welcome news," but said he still plans to try to block the bill from coming to a vote.

He said that even without the site-blocking provision, the bill would threaten "speech, innovation, and the future of the American economy."

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), also a leading critic of the piracy legislation, has scheduled a hearing for Jan. 18 to examine the consequences of the bill's Domain Name System and search engine blocking provisions. The hearing will feature testimony from the bill's critics, including representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and Reddit, a Web forum that has rallied opposition.

—This story was updated at 5:11 p.m.