An upcoming version of U.S. legislation designed to combat copyright infringement on the Web may include provisions that hold online services such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube legally responsible for infringing material posted by users, according to one group opposed to the bill.
Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives are expected to introduce a new version of the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (the PROTECT IP Act or PIPA) this week. The bill could be similar to a version of the PROTECT IP Act approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in May, but could include new legal liabilities for websites and online services that host user-generated content, said Demand Progress, a liberal civil liberties group opposed to the legislation.
The Senate version of the bill would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders requiring search engines and ISPs to stop sending traffic to websites accused of infringing copyright. The Senate bill would also allow copyright holders to seek court orders requiring payment processors and online ad networks to stop doing business with allegedly infringing websites.
If Demand Progress is correct about the House version of PROTECT IP, the bill would overturn parts of the 13-year-old Digital Millennium Copyright Act that protect websites and ISPs from copyright lawsuits for the infringing activity of their users. "Our allies on [Capitol] Hill say the bill's so bad that it could effectively destroy Youtube, Twitter, and other sites that rely on user-generated content by making the sites' owners legally responsible for everything their users post," the group said in an alert to members.
More than 30,000 U.S. residents sent messages to their lawmakers early Tuesday, Demand Progress said, after the group called on its members to ask their elected representatives to refuse to sponsor the House version of PROTECT IP. The House version is expected to be introduced this week by Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas).
Demand Progress will oppose the House bill if it looks like the Senate version, said David Segal, Demand Progress' executive director. "We ask even those lawmakers who are leaning towards supporting it to hold back for now, decline cosponsorship, and listen to opponents' concerns," he said in an email. "The Senate version of PROTECT IP will stifle free speech and innovation -- and all indications are that the House version will be even worse."
A spokeswoman for Goodlatte declined to comment on the legislation, referring questions to the House Judiciary Committee, where Smith is chairman. A spokeswoman for Smith didn't respond to a request for information about the bill.
Supporters of PROTECT IP say the bill would help shut down foreign websites that sell counterfeit, and sometimes dangerous, products. PROTECT IP would save U.S. jobs by shutting down online sales of counterfeit products, Steve Tepp, chief intellectual property counsel for the Global Intellectual Property Center at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a blog post last month.
"Rogue sites ... flood the U.S. marketplace with dangerously defective products, attract more than 53 billion visits per year, and have total disregard for U.S. laws which are designed to protect consumer safety and intellectual property," Tepp wrote. "Consumers should be able to rely on trust and good faith in buying legitimate products online. Rogue sites and online criminals abuse this trust for their illicit gain."
Several other groups have raised concerns about PROTECT IP. On Monday, trade groups the Consumer Electronics Association, the Computer and Communications Industry Association and NetCoalition sent a letter to Smith, Goodlatte and other House Judiciary Committee members, asking them to hold off on legislation and wait for more input from affected groups.
The three trade groups also sent a letter to other House members, asking them to consider potential "collateral damage" to the Internet before co-sponsoring PROTECT IP. The stakes are high, the letter said. "The technology industry is leading America out of the recession, and inadvertent damage to the tech sector could not happen at a worse time."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.