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Rep. Issa: SOPA won't be approved unless fixed

GOP committee chairman says Stop Online Piracy Act hands the attorney general far too much power and will be too "controversial" for Republican leaders to send to the House floor for a vote.

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
4 min read

Rep. Darrell Issa, a senior House Republican, is predicting a dim future for the Stop Online Piracy Act.

"I would expect this bill is not going to become law in this Congress unless these problems are resolved," Issa, whose district includes portions of San Diego and Riverside counties, told CNET in a telephone interview.

Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who's planning to offer amendments to SOPA during a vote on Thursday.
Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who's planning to offer amendments to SOPA during a vote on Thursday. U.S. House of Representatives

The problems he's referring to are a long list of criticisms from opponents of SOPA, including Internet engineers, Web companies including Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Zynga, and civil liberties and human rights groups. Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe says SOPA "should not be enacted by Congress" because of censorship concerns, and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has proposed an article page blackout.

Issa says he became a critic of SOPA because he came to Congress from the high tech industry and has been on multiple sides in intellectual property lawsuits. He was in federal district court "on patent cases as a defendant and a plaintiff," he says.

Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who drafted SOPA, has scheduled a committee vote on a slightly revised version--call it SOPA v2.0--on Thursday.

Issa says he's planning to offer amendments to SOPA that would "reduce" the discretion of the U.S. attorney general, who under the legislation would be allowed to seek a court order to make allegedly piratical Web sites virtually vanish from the Internet, including through Internet Protocol address blocking and deep packet inspection. In a separate statement, Issa said SOPA v2.0 "retains the fundamental flaws of its predecessor." (See CNET's FAQ on SOPA.)

The Justice Department has already "abused its discretion" by seizing the domain name of a hip-hop music blog and then relinquishing it last week by abruptly abandoning the lawsuit, Issa says. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a Web entrepreneur who serves on the House Judiciary committee, told CNET yesterday that he has similar concerns about the Justice Department's expansive authority and is also planning to offer amendments to SOPA.

It's probably a fair statement to say that Smith would only have scheduled the committee vote if he thought he had enough votes to forward SOPA to the House floor. On the other hand, he waited until virtually the last minute to announce the hearing: committee rules require three days notice, and Smith made the announcement late Monday.

Even if SOPA does clear the committee, "would it be appropriate to bring such a controversial bill to the floor?" Issa asks. "I think the Republican House leadership will look and say, 'Unless we have the support of the vast majority of Republicans, we're not going to take the bill to the floor.'" (Issa is the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, which is busy investigating the Obama administration on many fronts, including Fannie and Freddie bonuses, the Justice Department's Operation Fast and Furious, and the Freedom of Information Act.)

SOPA represents the latest effort from the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and their allies to counter what their members view as rampant piracy on the Internet, especially offshore sites such as ThePirateBay.org. The National Governors Association sent a letter to key House members today (PDF) urging legislative action against "foreign 'rogue' Web sites that traffic in stolen and counterfeit" intellectual property--but which stopped short of endorsing SOPA by name.

Along with Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, Issa has proposed an alternative called the OPEN Act. It targets ad networks and credit card companies, but stops short of trying to delete "rogue" Web sites from the Internet.

Before being elected to Congress, Issa founded Directed Electronics in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1982 to sell Viper car alarms and similar products. During that time he learned firsthand how the International Trade Commission works, and the OPEN Act creates what amounts to a specialized ITC piracy court. (Issa sold his interest in Directed Electronics in 2000 and it subsequently went public.)

The MPAA has criticized the OPEN Act as failing to "provide an effective way to target foreign rogue Web sites"; it's also been dismissed by content owners who say using the International Trade Commission instead of the federal courts makes the process too slow.

"The MPAA is being disingenuous when they say that," Issa replies. If a foreign Web site doesn't reply and participate in the ITC process, he says, the process wouldn't be the normal 16 or 18 months but far speedier. "The ITC has a faster rocket docket than any federal court."

Internet companies including Mozilla, Twitter, Google, and Yahoo have endorsed the OPEN Act, with some executives planning full-page ads criticizing SOPA, and the Senate version called Protect IP, that will appear in the New York Times and Washington Post.

For his part, MPAA chairman Chris Dodd lashed out at "piracy apologists" in a speech yesterday and called comparisons between SOPA and the Great Firewall of China "outrageous." Hollywood has prepared its own a set of ads warning of offshore Web sites. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, has written an op-ed offering many of the same arguments.

Issa has convened an online discussion of the OPEN Act at KeepTheWebOpen.com, which allows anyone to critique the draft bill or suggest improvements.

"We think it's the right way," he says. "Legislation shouldn't just be a piece of paper on a desk or posted to a static site. The American people should be able to have a dialogue with others to have a better piece of legislation."