Sen. Leahy planning changes to controversial piracy bill ahead of vote

Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyOn The Money: Trump dismisses 'phony Emoluments Clause' after Doral criticism | Senate Dems signal support for domestic spending package | House panel to consider vaping tax Senate Dems signal they'll support domestic spending package This week: Tensions flare over Schiff, impeachment inquiry MORE (D-Vt.) pushed back against criticism of his online piracy bill, the Protect IP Act, in a statement on Thursday, but said he will offer an amended version ahead of the Senate vote on Jan. 24.

Even with changes, however, another Senate Democrat said he will try to block a vote on the legislation.

The Protect IP Act is the Senate's version of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

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Both bills would empower the Justice Department and copyright holders to demand that search engines, Internet providers and payment processors cut off access to sites “dedicated” to copyright infringement.

But Leahy noted that he is open to changes to the provision requiring Internet providers to block infringing websites.

"As I prepare a managers’ amendment to be considered during the floor debate, I will therefore propose that the positive and negative effects of this provision be studied before implemented, so that we can focus on the other important provisions in this bill, which are essential to protecting American intellectual property online, and the American jobs that are tied to intellectual property," Leahy said. 

"I regret that law enforcement will not have this remedy available to it when websites operating overseas are stealing American property, threatening the safety and security of American consumers. However, the bill remains a strong and balanced approach to protecting intellectual property through a no-fault, no-liability system that leverages the most relevant players in the Internet ecosystem.”

The provision requiring Internet providers to block infringing websites is one of the most controversial aspects of the bill. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has compared the provision to how China censors political speech online.

Consumer groups applauded the proposed change but reiterated their opposition to the piracy bill.

"We appreciate the action Chairman Leahy is taking to improve his legislation. Even with that change, however, the bill would still be unacceptable," Sherwin Siy, deputy legal director of Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "The definitions in the bill are still far too sweeping, it still grants too much enforcement power to private parties, and still confers inappropriate blanket immunity for private companies."

Matt Wood, policy director of the Free Press Action Fund, called the change a "step in the right direction" but said the bill is "still troubling."

A Judiciary Committee aide said the senator is still working on the exact language of his amended bill. 

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Facebook removes Russian, Iranian accounts trying to interfere in 2020 | Zuckerberg on public relations blitz | Uncertainty over Huawei ban one month out US ban on China tech giant faces uncertainty a month out Hillicon Valley: GOP lawmakers offer election security measure | FTC Dem worries government is 'captured' by Big Tech | Lawmakers condemn Apple over Hong Kong censorship MORE (D-Ore.), one of the most outspoken opponents of the legislation, called the announcement "welcome news" but said he still plans to try to block the bill from coming to a vote.

“Unfortunately, this announcement to study the [Domain Name System] provision does not eliminate the clearly identified threat to net security contained within this bill," Wyden said. "Beyond the DNS provisions, the bill still establishes a censorship regime that threatens speech, innovation, and the future of the American economy."

The legislation is aimed at blocking foreign sites such as The Pirate Bay that offer illegal copies of movies, music and television shows with impunity.

Movie studios, record labels and business groups say the law is necessary to crack down on online copyright infringement, which is hurting businesses and destroying jobs.

Consumer groups and major Web companies, including Google, Yahoo and Facebook, warn the bill would stifle innovation. They say the legislation would impose an unreasonable burden on websites to police user-generated content and could lead to legitimate websites getting shut down.

The House Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on its version later this month. 

This story was updated at 7:20 p.m.