New bill would target websites enabling copyright infringement

The Stop Online Piracy Act could target sites that host user-generated content, critics say

A new bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives would allow law enforcement officials to shut down websites that enable or facilitate copyright infringement, leading some digital rights groups to suggest that YouTube, Twitter and online news sites could be targeted.

Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act Wednesday, along with a bipartisan group of 11 co-sponsors. The bill would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders to block U.S. access to foreign websites accused of infringing copyright.

The bill would also allow copyright holders to seek court orders to block the allegedly infringing sites if efforts to get online advertising networks and payment processors to stop doing business with the sites failed.

Websites operated for the purpose of infringement or having "only limited purpose or use other than" infringement would be targeted, as would sites that engage in, enable or facilitate infringement, according to language in the bill. The bill would also make it a crime, with a five-year prison term, to stream Web content without permission, in some cases, and it reenforces a process that U.S. agencies are now using to shut down U.S. websites accused of infringing copyright.

The bill, modeled partly after the PROTECT IP Act in the Senate, is a "Draconian" and unwarranted expansion of government power to protect copyright holders, said Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of digital rights group Public Knowledge.

"The bill would overturn the long-accepted principles and practices of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act notice and takedown process in favor of a one-sided enforcement mechanism that is far more broad than existing law while not attempting to protect the rights of anyone accused of copyright infringement," she said. "Anyone who writes about, or links to, a site suspected of infringement could also become a target of government action."

Concerns that legal websites will be targeted is overblown, said an aide for the House Judiciary Committee. "The provisions of this bill only target websites dedicated to illegal activity," she said. "Sites that host user content -- like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter -- have nothing to be concerned about under this bill."

Legislation is needed to protect U.S. residents, sponsors argued.

"Intellectual property is one of America's chief job creators and competitive advantages in the global marketplace, yet American inventors, authors, and entrepreneurs have been forced to stand by and watch as their works are stolen by foreign infringers beyond the reach of current U.S. laws," Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said in a statement. "The bill will also protect consumers from dangerous counterfeit products, such as fake drugs, automobile parts and infant formula."

Several groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Motion Picture Association of America and Comcast, applauded the lawmakers for sponsoring the legislation.

"Our broadband customers will continue to access and enjoy all legal content," Kyle McSlarrow, president of Comcast/NBCUniversal, said in a statement. "The Stop Online Piracy Act is narrowly targeted to only illegal streaming activities or rogue websites found by a court to be engaged in trademark counterfeiting or illegally reproducing or distributing material protected by copyright. Thus, this legislation, if enacted, would protect the Internet as an engine of innovation and economic growth, rather than as an environment that allows digital theft and counterfeiting to thrive."

Other groups voiced opposition. The legislation would regulate the Internet, said Markham Erickson, executive director of NetCoalition, a trade group with Google and Yahoo as members. The bill "unfortunately does very little to address its purported goal to combat offshore 'rogue' websites and commercial piracy," Erickson said in a statement. "It will reverse decades of federal policies that have made the U.S. Internet industry so successful, innovative and a cornerstone of U.S. competitiveness."

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 grant_gross@idg.com.

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