Senator threatens to block online copyright bill

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) vowed to fight attempts to pass a controversial copyright protection bill that would allow the U.S. government to shut down Web sites suspected of hosting infringing materials.

Wyden said late Thursday that he would seek to block the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, or COICA, from passing through the full Senate, unless the legislation is changed. Earlier Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 19-0 to approve the bill and send it to the full Senate.

Wyden called the bill the "wrong medicine" for dealing with online copyright infringement. The bill would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek expedited court orders requiring U.S. domain-name registrars to shut down domestic Web sites suspected of hosting infringing materials. The bill would also allow the DOJ, through court orders, to order U.S. Internet service providers to redirect customer traffic away from infringing foreign Web sites.

"Deploying this statute to combat online copyright infringement seems almost like using a bunker-busting cluster bomb, when what you need is a precision-guided missile," Wyden said during a hearing on digital trade issues. "If you don't think this thing through carefully, the collateral damage would be American innovation, American jobs, and a secure Internet."

Wyden's opposition means the bill is likely dead this year. Individual senators can place holds on legislation, and there are only a few working days left in the congressional session this year. Sponsors of the legislation, including fellow Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would have to reintroduce the bill if it doesn't pass this year.

Supporters of the bill say it's needed to combat rampant copyright and trademark infringement online. The bill would protect legitimate sites by targeting only sites that have no other purpose than the distribution of infringing materials, supporters said.

"The Internet serves as the glue of international commerce in today's global economy," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a bill sponsor, said in a statement. "But it's also been turned into a tool for online thieves to sell counterfeit and pirated goods, making hundreds of millions of dollars off of stolen American intellectual property."

COICA has bipartisan support and will help copyright holders and police better coordinate their efforts to fight online piracy, Hatch added.

Opponents of the legislation say it amounts to censorship. Even websites with infringing materials have content that's protected by free-speech rights, opponents have said.

The bill could also lead to a fragmentation of the Internet, with other countries emboldened to enforce their own laws, including censorship, said critics, including the Center for Democracy and Technology.

COICA is an example of repeated efforts to fix longtime problems through Internet restrictions, said Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a tech trade group. The Judiciary Committee pushed through the bill without adequate hearings and input from the public, Black said.

"The significance and implications of the legislation I don't think have been well thought through," Black said during the hearing on digital trade. "Sadly, it's an example of what not to do in an important, complicated digital ecosystem."

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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