Contentious IP protection bill heads for Senate debate

Backers say bill protects against online piracy, sale of counterfeit goods; vocal opponents call it Internet censorship

A controversial IP protection bill that would require domain registrars, Internet Service Providers and others to block access to Web sites the U.S. says contribute to copyright infringement, was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday morning.

The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA). introduced in September by U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), now heads to the full Senate for debate.

In a statement, Leahy said COICA would provide U.S. law enforcement agencies with important new tools needed to shut down online piracy Web sites as well as those used to sell counterfeit goods. Passage of the bill would create an expedited process for the U.S. Department of Justice to "crack down on rogue websites, regardless of where overseas the criminals are hiding," he added.

The ease and the speed with which the bill passed through the Judiciary Committee is likely to fan the concerns of its many opponents.

"It appears that the Senate Judiciary Committee just passed an Internet censorship bill without [first holding] hearings," said Peter Eckersley, senior staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a vocal opponent of the proposed legislation. "They think that the best way to help the entertainment industry is to fight a bottomless 'war on copying' regardless of the consequences."

In essence, COICA would allow the DOJ to file a civil, in rem action to seek a preliminary injunction against any Web site it determines is peddling copyrighted material and/or counterfeit goods. In rem civil actions are filed against property, such as physical property or Web sites, rather than individuals.

An injunction would require that all U.S. based domain registrars, ISPs and other operators of a domain name system server prevent access to a disuputed domain name. Registrars and registers subject to the injunction would be required to lock the specified domain name, shutting down access to it.

The bill passed by the committee did not include a clause in the original proposal that would have allowed the U.S. Attorney General to compile a list of Web sites the DOJ concluded infringed on copyright laws. That clause would not have required service providers and others to block access to such sites, but would have provided full immunity to anyone that did. That provision was removed early in the legislative process following an outcry from privacy advocates.

COICA, pushed heavily by a wide variety of groups representing intellectual property owners and copyright owners, appears to be gaining broad support in the Senate. Its backers include Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, several labor unions, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Newspaper Association of America and the Software and Information Industry Association.

Supporters say the legislation is vital to protect American intellectual property from what they argue is unfettered online piracy and sales of counterfeit goods. In a statement, the Judiciary Committee said such theft costs U.S. businesses an estimated $100 billion annually, and results in the loss of thousands of jobs.

Many supporters argue that the bill will be used only against the worst offenders, many of whom are based outside the U.S.

But a vocal and diverse band of privacy advocates, civil rights groups, academics and technologists argue that COICA would give the government powers to make entire Web sites and domains disappear from the Internet even if only links to infringement are deemed to be their central purpose.

In an open letter to Congress drafted earlier this week, several law professors from leading universities argued that COICA would allow the DOJ to serve injunctions against entities that are not in any way directly linked to illegal activity. The bill's language allows injunctions to be issued against the domain name registrar where the site is registered, the domain name registry and any of thousands of service providers who offer a route to the infringing site, the letter said.

Eckersley said that instead of helping content creators, the bill will hurt them. "It will endanger the next generation of innovative online businesses -- the next wave of YouTubes and Pandoras -- that are the best way to pay artists in the Internet era," he said.

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

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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