White House calls for new law targeting 'offshore' Web sites

Despite January's widespread protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act, the White House is asking Congress to enact a new copyright law "to address offshore infringement."

Declan McCullagh
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.
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Only weeks after protests over two digital copyright bills demonstrated the political muscle of Internet users, the White House is publicly endorsing new copyright legislation that also would target suspected pirate Web sites.

After the unprecedented outcry against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act -- designed to target offshore copyright-infringing Web sites -- supporters of the bills on Capitol Hill backed down and moved on to other topics.

Victoria Espinel, appointed by President Obama in 2009, whose office says a new law is necessary "to address offshore infringement."
Victoria Espinel, appointed by President Obama in 2009, whose office says a new law is necessary "to address offshore infringement." White House

But the White House today reignited the congressional debate by throwing its weight behind legislation targeting offshore Web sites. "We believe that new legislative and non-legislative tools are needed to address offshore infringement," today's report (PDF) says.

The report, prepared by U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator Victoria Espinel, who President Obama appointed to the job in 2009, lists Protect IP and SOPA as "examples of recent attempts by Congress to address the issues of counterfeiting and piracy online." It also endorses the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and lauds Internet providers, including Comcast, Cablevision, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable, for agreeing last summer to become Internet copyright cops.

The White House did say that it wouldn't endorse a bill that endangers freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risks, or negatively affects the DNS system. On the other hand, it says elsewhere that "combating online infringement" -- not protecting free speech -- is a governmental priority "of the highest order."

"Everyone seems to be talking out of both sides of their mouth in this report," says Julie Samuels, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who follows copyright law.

"They're trying to make everybody happy, I'm sure," Samuels says. "But unfortunately it's pretty easy to read between the lines."

In an earlier statement on January 14 on SOPA, the administration said it supported some kind of legislation. But after the blackouts three days later demonstrated how unpopular the idea was, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), SOPA's author, said a new law was premature until there was "wider agreement on a solution."

Even the most ardent supporters of SOPA and Protect IP are no longer as vocal in calling for new laws targeting offshore Web sites. Hollywood is trying a charm offensive, with Paramount Pictures acknowledging that it was "humbled" by the protests. An op-ed piece last month in The New York Times by Cary Sherman, head of the Recording Industry Association of America, called for "fresh ideas and new approaches" rather than a SOPA v2.0 or v3.0.

That change of heart happened after a joint legislative push by the RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America to enact SOPA and Protect IP encountered an insurmountable obstacle: a remarkable protest in January that, by some accounts, involved more than 10 million Internet users. Wikipedia went dark for a day; Google, Amazon, and Craigslist posted anti-SOPA warnings on their home pages; irate voters overwhelmed the U.S. Senate's Web site and demonstrated to politicians that Internet users could be a potent political force.

Afterward, dozens of the companies and groups involved in the blackouts sent a letter (PDF) to Congress warning politicians against trying to rush through a new set of bills. "The concerns are too fundamental and too numerous to be fully addressed through hasty revisions to these bills," the letter says. "Nor can they be addressed by closed door negotiations among a small set of inside-the-beltway stakeholders." (SOPA would, of course, let the Justice Department obtain an order to be served on search engines, Internet service providers, and other companies, forcing them to make a suspected piratical Web site effectively vanish.)

Among the letter's signers: Amnesty International, Cheezburger Network, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet Archive, Mozilla, O'Reilly Media, Public Knowledge, Tucows, Twitpic, and WordPress Foundation.

Which is why the White House's report today asking Congress to enact legislation "to address offshore infringement" came as a bit of a surprise.

"If we learned anything in January, it's that Internet users have a voice and they're going to make that voice heard," says the EFF's Samuels. "Whether it's in response to legislative proposals or voluntary agreements, it's going to happen. There are millions of Americans who care about these issues. That's not going to change."