Opposition to Stop Online Piracy Act grows

Tech trade groups contend proposed law would unprecedented power to copyright owners

A coalition of technology trade groups today joined the growing chorus of voices opposing a recently filed anti-piracy bill that they contend is far too heavy-handed.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the Computers and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) and NetCoalition, an association representing major ISPs, jointly sent letter to members of Congress expressing concern over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) legislation introduced last week in the the U.S. House of Representatives.

The bill (HR 3261), sponsored by Lamar Smith (R-VA), John Conyers (D-MI), Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Howard Berman (D-CA) and several co-sponsors, is designed to protect U.S. copyright and IP owners against what the authors say is rampant online sales of counterfeit U.S goods and copyright theft by "rogue" foreign sites.

The most controversial portion of the bill would allow copyright holders to ask ISPs and search engine companies to block U.S. access to any site officials say are participating in, enabling or contributing to copyright theft and the sale of counterfeit goods.

The law would allow copyright holders and IP owners to ask payment processing companies such as MasterCard and PayPal, as well as advertising networks, to terminate their services to any site that is they deem is in violation of SOPA.

ISPs and other service providers would be obligated to comply within five days of notification by copyright holders of violators.

Those that comply with the requests would receive full immunity under SOPA. Companies that don't comply with such requests could face legal action from copyright and IP holders.

The proposed law would allow copyright and IP owners to issue requests for service termination if just one page on a site containing thousands of pages is deemed to violate the provisions of the law.

For instance, an auction website with a single listing for a counterfeit would theoretically be in violation of SOPA.

Similar -- and equally controversial -- proposed legislation, the Protect IP Act , is currently working it way through the U.S. Senate.

In the letter sent today, the trade groups said that SOPA would create an "unprecedented private right of action regime for intellectual property."

Markham Erickson, executive director of NetCoalition, said the proposal is so broadly worded and so sweeping in scope that even sites that haven't broken U.S. laws can be shut down with a single notice.

Service providers would be required to block sites based purely on the allegations of a rights holder, Erickson said.

The proposed law as written would provide no recourse or due process for websites that are the target of such actions, he said.

The bill would create new litigation risks for cloud computing companies, social network sites and new technologies that have even the potential of being misused for copyright infringement purposes, Erickson said.

"In short, this is not a bill that targets 'rogue foreign sites.' Rather, it allows movie studios, foreign luxury goods manufacturers, patent and copyright trolls, and any holder of intellectual property the right to target" U.S. companies, the letter noted.

Corynne McSherry, IP director with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that while sponsors have said the bill targets foreign entities, there's little doubt that U.S. companies are also in danger.

At a minimum, any site that hosts user generated content, including YouTube, Flickr and Twitter, would come under enormous pressure to monitor and filter content, McSherry said. Such sites are likely to be bombarded with a flood of copyright infringement notices if the proposed legislation becomes law, she predicted.

The proposed bill would allow copyright and IP owners to avoid the safe harbors that exist under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), McSherry said.

Under DMCA, copyright holders can ask sites to take down material they allege infringes on copyrights or would enable the sale of counterfeit goods. But the sites cannot be held liable for posting such material.

SOPA would allow copyright owners to directly sue the sites, she said. "This bill gives Hollywood a chance to kick that pesky Internet off their lawn," she said.

Supporters of the legislation, which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and various trade groups and labor unions representing intellectual property owners and copyright owners, argue that the bill is necessary to stop the unfettered online theft of U.S. IP and copyrighted material.

Such groups argue that such thefts cost U.S. businesses more than $100 billion annually and thousands of jobs. Supporters also argue that the proposed law would only affect egregious offenders, most of which are based outside the U.S.

"Rogue websites that steal and sell American innovations have operated with impunity," Smith said in a statement. "The online thieves who run these foreign websites are out of the reach of U.S. law enforcement agencies and profit from selling pirated goods without any legal consequences."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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