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Copyright bill revives Internet 'death penalty'

House members introduce expanded version of the Protect IP Act that would allow authorities to "expel" rogue Web sites from the Internet.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
Rep. Lamar Smith, the bill's cosponsor, at a hearing earlier this year
Rep. Lamar Smith, the bill's cosponsor, at a hearing earlier this year U.S. House of Representatives

Hollywood's lobbyists have launched a bold new anti-piracy offensive in Washington that will face strong opposition from Internet companies and users who worry it goes too far and jeopardizes free speech rights.

A dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives today announced they've jointly introduced a new bill intended to make allegedly copyright-infringing Web sites, sometimes called "rogue" Web sites, virtually disappear from the Internet.

The bill, called the Stop Online Piracy Act (PDF)--although because the sponsors dubbed the Web-blocking portions the "E-PARASITE Act," it's likely to become known by either name, or both--represents a long-anticipated escalation by major copyright holders to curb online piracy and counterfeit goods via the law.

Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who heads the House Judiciary committee, said the measure will help "stop the flow of revenue to rogue Web sites and ensures that the profits from American innovations go to American innovators."

It's a bipartisan effort--in fact, given Hollywood's close relationship with the Democratic Party, Dems are likely to be the most enthusiastic supporters. Rep. Howard Berman, a Democrat whose district is adjacent to Hollywood, Calif., called the Stop Online Piracy Act an "important next step in the fight against digital theft."

An earlier version of the bill, which a Senate committee approved in May, was broadly supported by film and music industry companies. But civil liberties groups were steadfastly opposed; so were trade associations representing Web companies. Google chairman Eric Schmidt was even more critical, as were prominent venture capitalists.

Because the Stop Online Piracy Act is 79 pages long and amends existing law in subtle ways, it will take some time to analyze how it differs from the PROTECT IP Act, which earlier introduced the notion of an Internet "death penalty."

That measure sought to give the U.S. Department of Justice the power to seek a court order against an allegedly infringing Web site, and then serve that order on search engines, certain Domain Name System (DNS) providers, and Internet advertising firms. Those organizations, in turn, would be required to make the target site effectively "invisible" to Web users.

That approach, which would mark a fundamental break with the "end-to-end" design of the Internet, has drawn fire from Internet engineers and security specialists. The Stop Online Piracy Act follows the same model.

Some changes: search engines are explicitly defined; foreign Web sites are treated differently than domestic Web sites; language to ensure at least some portions survive a constitutional challenge has been added; the general-purpose law used to prosecute even not-for-profit copyright infringements has been made more Draconian.

Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said her group was still reviewing the proposal.

"One thing is clear: Big Media is doing its best to accomplish in Washington what it couldn't in court," McSherry told CNET. Supporters of the measure want to eliminate, she said, legal "safe harbors that have made possible an explosion of economic growth, innovation, and creativity. And, it is not a little ironic that a bill that proposing massive interference with the Internet ecosystem is being introduced just as human rights advocates from around the world are meeting in Silicon Valley to talk about the problem of internet censorship." (That conference was held in San Francisco yesterday and today.)

Ed Black, head of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which counts eBay, Facebook, Google, and Yahoo as members, said the bill was "akin to trying to block phones calls by ripping a page from a phone book."

But EFF, CCIA, and their allies including the Public Knowledge advocacy group are outnumbered and, probably, will be outspent. Far more groups have thrown their support behind the measure, and its congressional sponsors include the influential heads of the relevant committees.

The National Music Publishers' Association called it an "important bill." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce applauded the politicians who introduced it today for "standing up to the mass theft of American intellectual property."

The Motion Picture Association of America joined a dizzying array of organizations touting the bill as a way to save U.S. jobs. The list included the American Federation of Musicians, the Directors Guild of America, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the Screen Actors Guild.

A hearing on the bill has been scheduled for November 16.