Senate bill amounts to death penalty for Web sites

Protect IP Act requires search engines, some Domain Name System providers, and other Internet companies to "disable access" to Web sites accused of piracy.

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

A new bill backed by movie studios and other large copyright holders takes a novel approach to curbing access to piratical Web sites: an Internet death penalty.

That's a good way to describe the approach adopted by the legislation introduced today, which specifies a step-by-step method for making Web sites suspected of infringing copyrights or trademarks vanish from the Internet. It's called the Protect IP Act.

The U.S. Department of Justice would receive 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 providers, and Internet advertising firms--which would in turn be required to "expeditiously" make the target Web site invisible.


It's not entirely clear how broad the Protect IP Act's authority would be. An earlier draft (PDF) of the legislation would have allowed the Justice Department to order any "interactive computer service"--a phrase courts have interpreted to mean any Web site--to block access to the suspected pirate site.

But the final version (PDF) refers instead to "information location tool." That's defined as a "directory, index, reference, pointer, or hypertext link," which would certainly sweep in Google, Yahoo, and search engines, and may also cover many other Web sites.

This is the main process through which the Internet death penalty is imposed. The Protect IP Act says that an "information location tool shall take technically feasible and reasonable measures, as expeditiously as possible, to remove or disable access to the Internet site associated with the domain name set forth in the order." In addition, it must delete all hyperlinks to the offending "Internet site."

In other words, the targeted Web site would start to vanish from the Internet in the United States.

Any copyright holder also could file a lawsuit and seek to levy a less dramatic form of Internet punishment, blocking only "financial transactions" and "Internet advertising services" from doing business with the suspected infringer.

Sponsors of the Protect IP Act include Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), as well as Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

Leahy said in a statement that his proposal permits law enforcement to "crack down on rogue Web sites dedicated to the sale of infringing or counterfeit goods." The actual bill text, however, doesn't require that the piratical Web site sell anything--meaning, for example, if WikiLeaks were accused of primarily distributing copyrighted internal bank documents, access from the United States could be curbed.

The Protect IP Act doesn't appear to require broadband providers (which probably aren't "information location tools") to block the Internet address of the targeted Web site. Which may be why the National Cable and Telecommunications Association applauded the measure in a statement saying its introduction will address "the growing issues of online piracy and illegal content distribution that are hurting America's content industry and consumers."

"We want to thank Chairman Leahy, Senator Hatch, and the other co-sponsors for recognizing the true cost of online content theft and for seeking new tools to effectively enforce U.S. laws on the online marketplace," said Michael O'Leary, executive vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America (PDF). And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was no less enthusiastic, calling the bill an "enhanced legal tool against 'rogue sites,' which steal American jobs and threaten consumers' health and safety."

Sherwin Siy, deputy legal director at Public Knowledge, said: "I can appreciate that the drafters are trying to address some of the overbreadth issues, but I think that the core of the bill remains a problem." And the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which represents some Internet companies, called Protect IP an "Internet censorship bill" under a "new name."

The Protect IP Act is a successor to last fall's bill known as COICA, for Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act. That bill used different procedures, but also allowed the government to pull the plug on Web sites accused of aiding piracy.

Another bill introduced Thursday would make the illegal streaming of copyrighted works a federal felony, a proposal that follows a White House recommendation in March.