Senate panel approves controversial copyright bill

A U.S. Senate committee has unanimously approved a controversial bill that would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders requiring search engines and Internet service providers to stop sending traffic to websites accused of infringing copyright.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act, or PROTECT IP Act, which would also allow copyright holders to seek court orders requiring payment processors and online ad networks to stop doing business with allegedly infringing websites.

The bill, introduced two weeks ago, now awaits approval by the full Senate.

The legislation will allow the DOJ to target the "worst of the worst" foreign websites dedicated to digital piracy or selling counterfeit goods, said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill. Intellectual property theft is "unacceptable," Leahy, chairman of the committee, said in a statement.

"Few things are more important to the future of the American economy and job creation than protecting our intellectual property," Leahy added. "At a time where our country is beginning to regain its economic footing, businesses face an additional hurdle, the severity of which is increasing by the day -- digital theft."

Several groups criticized the bill. A recent paper from five Internet engineers said the bill could "threaten the security and stability of the global DNS" by encouraging widespread circumvention of DNS (domain name system) filters.

The bill would do little to stop copyright infringement online while opening up payment processors and online ad networks to multiple lawsuits from copyright holders, added Sherwin Siy, deputy legal director for Public Knowledge, a digital rights group.

The PROTECT IP Act "threatens the security and global functioning of the Internet, and opens the door to nuisance lawsuits while doing little if anything to curb the issues of international source of illegal downloads the bill seeks to address," he said in a statement.

The bill would create a list of blocked Internet sites, added Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a tech trade group. "At a time when U.S. businesses are increasing[ly] confronted with barriers to Internet trade and censorship abroad, a government committed to Internet openness should not be in the business of blacklisting Internet sites," he said in a statement.

Several other groups, including the Motion Picture Association of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, applauded the committee's vote, however.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, a trade group representing ISPs that could be targeted by court orders authorized in the bill, also voiced support for the legislation.

"By cracking down on rogue websites that have for too long encouraged the theft of valuable content and intellectual property, the PROTECT IP Act of 2011 sends a strong message that this illicit practice will no longer be tolerated," NCTA President and CEO Michael Powell said in a statement.

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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