Lawmakers may subpoena Google to antipiracy hearings

Members of the Senate Judiciary committee want Google to appear and some say they are willing to subpoena the company to testify. Copyright owners said Google is too closely connected to pirate sites.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
3 min read
Following the hearing, Sen. Patrick Leahy offers his thanks to Christine Jones, general counsel for the Go Daddy Group and Thomas Dailey, general counsel of Verizon. Greg Sandoval

WASHINGTON--Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said they want Google to appear before them to discuss upcoming antipiracy legislation as well as accusations that the search company profits from illegal file sharing.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee's chairman, invited a Google, Verizon, the Authors Guild and other companies with a stake in the online copyright fight to appear to give their views about a controversial bill Leahy is preparing to reintroduce in the Senate this year. The legislation would hand the government sweeping powers to take down alleged pirate sites and attempt to cut off their revenue sources.

In the company's absence, the other witnesses and committee members were critical of Google. Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild, told the committee that Google is capable of doing much more to protect content. He noted that the company operates a filtering and human review system that helps prevent child porn and other objectionable material from appearing on YouTube. He called on the company to do the same for URLs. He said Google should check to see whether site operators are engaged in copyright violations before allowing them to sign up to AdSense. Other copyright owners said Google appears to do more to help larger companies protect content than smaller firms.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said not only was he disappointed that Google didn't show, but he suggested he would use the committee's subpoena power to compel representatives to testify at future hearings on the issue. Ads served by Google's AdSense can be found on numerous sites accused of trafficking in pirated films, music, software and games, say copyright owners.

"We look forward to working with the committee on this important legislation," said a Google spokeswoman.

Leahy's bill, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), is designed to speed up the legal process of shutting down U.S. sites accused of illegally trafficking in intellectual property. For overseas sites suspected of illegally distributing copyrighted material, the legislation would hand the government the power to order ad networks, payment transaction companies, and Internet service providers to cut financial ties with the sites, or in the case of ISPs, block the sites from being accessed in this country.

Critics of the bill call it censorship. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other watchdog groups said the law would empower the government with the means to pull down any site it chooses simply by denouncing it as a pirate site.

Absent from the hearing were any of the groups or anyone else that offered much criticism. Verizon and Visa, however cautioned committee member to move carefully and not throw too much of the burden of battling antipiracy on them. Denise Yee, senior trademark counsel for Visa, said the nation's largest payment-transaction service is not in a position to determine whether content on any site is copyrighted. Verizon general counsel Thomas Dailey noted that blocking Domain Name Systems (DNS) was not a foolproof way to stop piracy, and he said it was relatively simple to overcome.

This didn't appear to have much impact on the direction of the hearing. Throughout, committee members from both the left and right appeared determined to display how serious they are about supporting antipiracy legislation--in some form or another. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) compared current online piracy and counterfeiting with the sacking of Spanish ships as they returned from the New World laden with gold and silver centuries ago.

Whitehouse said the plunder that occurs online today causes real damage to American businesses and taxpayers. He also let everyone at the hearing, especially Verizon and Visa, know that he wasn't very sympathetic to companies that want to wait for others to lead on this issue. He called for action now.

As far as Leahy's bill is concerned, it has to prove it can get past the opposition. Last November, Sen. Ron Wyden placed a hold on the legislation shortly before Congress adjourned for the year. Wyden's staff has indicated he will likely oppose anything that's too similar to COICA.