The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday held its first hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Act that has put lawmakers who say it would protect intellectual property at odds with tech giants that argue it is overly broad and burdensome on the Internet's lawful players.
Developing laws to battle online piracy can be like walking through a minefield for lawmakers, as concerns about privacy, security and free speech are almost always raised.
SOPA, a bipartisan bill supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and music and movie industry groups, would allow the Department of Justice and copyright holders to get a court order to block access to foreign websites. SOPA would also let copyright holders get a court order to shut down domestic websites that feature or sell infringing content.
Payment networks like PayPal and Internet service providers would also be required to help shut down websites and financial transactions from infringing websites.
David Sohn, senior policy analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told IBTimes this "deputizes" these companies to root out infringing websites.
While the bill maybe well-intentioned, the language is broad enough to potentially include material found on social media, micro-blogging platforms such as Tumblr or websites that hosts user-generated content.
The bill deems a website "dedicated to theft of U.S. property" if it "engages in, enables, or facilitates" copyright infringement or "avoids confirming a high probability" of infringing activity.
Michael P. O'Leary of the Motion Picture Association of America said these definitions clearly make "rogue websites" a target, not Facebook or Twitter, which oppose the legislation.
The site must deliberately turn a blind eye to violations, be dedicated to offering pirated material and foster infringement like reward programs for uploading stolen content, he said.
"These narrow definitions would not apply to legitimate businesses," he said.
But Google's policy counsel, Katherine Oyama, argued that the definitions in the bill are loose. Even an isolated instance could get an entire website tarred, she said.
Oyama testified that any legislation in this arena "should be carefully crafted, narrowly focused, and clearly targeted" at foreign sites that specialize in disseminating copyrighted material or counterfeit goods.
Such outcry from online policy groups and tech companies fell on deaf ears.
Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina, the top Democrat on a subcommittee on intellectual property, said at the top of the hearing that "obstinate opposition" voiced since the bill was introduced in October is based on the money at stake.
"This is not speculative. Sites that specialize in stolen goods attract a lot of eyeballs, which in turn attracts a lot of advertising, which in turn means--you got it--lots of money," Watt said. "When I hear overblown claims like this bill is a 'giveaway to the greedy trial lawyers,' 'a killer of innovation and entrepreneurs,' or that the cosponsors are 'Internet killers,' I become suspicious of the message, as well as the messenger."
Another problem with SOPA critics have raised is that the bill's enforcement mechanism is too weak. The provision that would block an Internet user from accessing a website with pirated media is known as domain filtering.
To access a website, a user will type in the site's domain name into a web browser and a technical, behind-the-scenes process translates the name into an IP address that computers understand. The bill would make Internet service providers block access when a user types a name into a web browser, meaning that a site could be accessed through its IP address.
The problem is this is a barrier that is easy to circumvent. An expert in this field could find a way to access the unblocked IP address and post instructions online, giving anyone savvy enough to use Google a key to pirated content.
"It's an appealing idea," said Sohn of the Center for Democracy & Technology. "The problem is, on the Internet, it simply doesn't work very well."
He used Wikileaks to illustrate his point.
"All those efforts to try to make Wikileaks inaccessible to Internet users failed miserably," he said.
Only when the website's finances were targeted did it shut down. Wikileaks is currently pleading for donations on its website to "secure our economic survival" and begin publishing content again.
"It's a pretty good lesson in what works and what doesn't online," Sohn said.
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