Outcry prompts amendments to online IP protection bill

Supporters of Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act contend critics' concerns are overblown

Sponsors of a controversial U.S. Senate bill aimed at protecting online intellectual property have amended key portions of the proposed legislation in response to an outpouring of concern over its provisions

The proposed Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), introduced last week by U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek preliminary court orders against any Internet domain that it determines is peddling infringing goods.

If the original bill was passed by Congress and signed into law, all U.S. based Internet Service Providers, domain registrars and other operators of a domain name system servers would have been required to prevent access to any domain name served with a court order. The bill would also prevent U.S. based payment processors from processing online payments on the affected Web sites.

The amendment proposed today strikes a clause allowing the DOJ to publish lists of sites it "determines are dedicated to infringing activities" but for which no court order has been sought. The amendment also softens language related to actions that ISPs and payment processors are required to take against domains that have been served with a court order.

The proposed changes to the bill would require that ISPs and payment processors act as "expeditiously as reasonable" to block domains on a court ordered list. The amendment makes it clear that ISPs will not have to modify networks in order to comply with the order. However, the law does require changes to DNS servers to prevent a domain name from resolving to its IP address if it is on the court-ordered list.

The amendment "responds to various concerns from outside parties, while preserving the purpose of the legislation," according to a statement from the Senate Judiciary Committee which is considering the bill.

The changes come amid an outpouring of concerns expressed by privacy groups and prominent industry personalities.

Many contend that the original proposal would result in two government-created Internet blacklists, including one compiled by the DOJ without judicial review.

Groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Demand Progress argued that the proposed law would lead to Internet censorship that could end up blocking legal content and domains as well as content that infringes on copyrights.

Aaron Swartz, executive director of Demand Progress, said Wednesday that the amendment does little to alleviate his concerns. While the elimination of one of the blacklists is welcome, the fact that ISPs, domain registrars and others are still required to block access to sites deemed as infringing by a court order is worrisome, he said.

Numerous supporters of the bill however today said that the concerns of critics of the bill are overstated.

A spokesman from a large entertainment company he asked not be identified contended that the bill targets only at the worst offenders of intellecual property theft, and that a vast majority of them are based outside the U.S..

He added that it is unreasonable to automatically assume that the legislation will be used to censor or curtail legitimate content. "There is no basis to assume that everybody will act in the worst possible way," he said.

Meanwhile representatives from the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Directors Guild of America, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the Screen Actors Guild today sent a letter to Sen. Leahy expressing support for the bill.

The letter blasted the "barrage of misinformation and fear tactics" being allegedly spread by opponents of the proposed bill and said COICA was needed to protect vital American IP against rampant misuse and theft. "The opposition to this legislation will do all they can to confuse this reality," the letter said while accusing them of paralyzing the legislative process "with half-truths and absurd misrepresentations of civic rights."

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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