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Will Google testify at Senate antipiracy hearing?

In push to get legislation through Congress, senator invites giants like Google, Visa, and Verizon to testify about bill that would require them to do more to combat piracy.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy appears to have chosen a different approach to getting an antipiracy bill through Congress than the one he pursued last fall.

Ahead of a Senate hearing to discuss online piracy scheduled for next Wednesday, Leahy's staff has met in recent days with representatives of Google and other companies about their objections to his antipiracy plans, participants in the talks told CNET yesterday.

Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, saw an antipiracy bill he attempted to rush through the Senate late last year held up just before Congress adjourned. If his Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) had passed, ISPs, large payment processors, and online ad networks would have been required to accept a larger role in antipiracy operations. Leahy is expected to submit a revised version of COICA later this year.

Sen. Patrick Leahy warns of growing electronic surveillance during a speech at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in 2006. Declan McCullagh/CNET

Leahy is now searching for consensus. He has already agreed to make changes to his bill, according to the sources. He has held talks with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the lawmaker who derailed COICA last year over concerns that it would hurt American innovation and Internet security. Leahy has also invited Google, Visa, Verizon, and others to testify at Wednesday's hearing. While Verizon and Visa have agreed to appear, Google has yet to respond, the sources said.

The hearing could provide clues as to how much opposition to Leahy's bill remains. As for Google, the amount of cooperation the company offers Leahy could signal how much more it is willing to do to help protect copyrighted content online.

Leahy introduced COICA in the Senate last September. If the bill passes, the government could move more quickly to shut down alleged piracy sites. For sites based in the United States, the Department of Justice could present evidence to a judge that a site was home to copyright infringement and if the court agreed, would issue an order to the site's registrar to seize the domain. The DOJ would also be empowered to cut off access in this country to targeted overseas sites.

The government could, for example, order Visa or MasterCard to stop processing transactions or require Google to boot sites from its ad network in moves designed to choke off revenue streams to accused pirates. The bill received unanimous support in the judiciary committee last fall.

The film, music, video game, and software industries are among those trying to rally support for Leahy's legislation. Online piracy costs U.S. jobs, shrinks the overall economy and has gone unchecked by the government for too long, supporters of the bill say. After spending years fighting illegal file sharing, the film and music sectors have found themselves battling a new foe: illegal cyberlockers.

Pirated materials are being stored on the servers of hosting services, and scores of people access them via Web-connected devices. On Tuesday, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) filed a lawsuit against Hotfile.com, a Florida-based hosting service that the top film studios accuse of encouraging copyright violations.

The tech sector blasted COICA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Computer and Communications and Industry Association, and the 89 engineers who played a large role in the development of the Internet called the bill censorship and a means for the government to take down any site it wished to silence. They say the legislation would also needlessly pile excess financial obligations on ISPs and other companies that have done nothing wrong.

Sen. Ron Wyden U.S. Senate

After receiving bipartisan support in the judiciary committee, the bill was untracked in November by Wyden--individual senators can place holds on pending legislation. Wyden instantly became a superstar to proponents of free content and an open Internet. Wyden forced Leahy to start again, and this time, Leahy appears ready to compromise.

Technology companies, including members of NetCoalition, a public-interest group, have gotten a chance to air their concerns, Markham Erickson, the group's general counsel, and others told CNET. NetCoalition counts among its members Google, Bloomberg, Yahoo, and CNET, publisher of this news site.

COICA, the way it was originally written, raised "considerable concern about the ability of service providers to comply with the bill," Erickson said, "especially some of the technological requirements."

NetCoalition's representatives told Leahy's aides they were unsure the bill complied with copyright law and complained that it put pressure on "entities that are simply conduits," according to Erickson. He also said Leahy seems willing to work with NetCoalition.

As usual, Google's precise position on these issues is hard to pinpoint. The search giant has a long history of warring with copyright owners. The most significant case was a three-year-long court battle against Viacom, which accused Google of encouraging copyright violations at YouTube. Google won a decision last year in federal court but Viacom has appealed.

In the last year, however, Google has appeared more willing to set up roadblocks to Web piracy. In December, the search giant announced it would start booting alleged copyright violators off AdSense, the company's successful advertising program. Google has also begun blocking terms associated with piracy from appearing in the search engine's Autocomplete function.

The changes occurred as Google is trying to license music and film content for services such as Google TV and an upcoming streaming-music offering.

With or without Google's support, the chances of the sides coming to a quick resolution appear slim. While Leahy has yet to resubmit COICA or any new antipiracy legislation, sources close to the talks said Wyden is still very much opposed to many of the main provisions.

Update 10:45 a.m. PT: Turns out Google representatives won't be testifying at Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee just released the witness list and the search company is not on it. As reported earlier by CNET, representatives from Visa and Verizon will appear, in addition to executives from GoDaddy, The Authors Guild and Rosetta Stone. The search company will have other opportunities as more hearings are likely to be held.