New legislation that seeks to curb copyright infringement by requiring domain-name registrars to shut down websites suspected of hosting infringing materials raises serious free-speech concerns, a civil liberties group said Tuesday.
The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, introduced Sept. 20 by U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, would block free speech on U.S. and foreign websites if they are taken down by registrars and registries, said the Center for Democracy and Technology.
The bill could also lead to a fragmentation of the Internet, as other countries attempt to enforce their own laws, including censorship, on foreign websites, CDT officials said.
New requirements for registries and registrars to take down websites suspected of copyright violations are "unprecedented in the United States," said Leslie Harris, CDT's president and CEO.
The bill would move the U.S. government toward a policy of requiring Internet service providers to be filters of Web content, Harris said during a press conference. "It's going to be blocking orders for intellectual property, then for terrorism or child safety or cybersecurity," she said.
The bill would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek a court order requiring a registry or registrar to shut down a website "primarily designed" to infringe copyright. But even on those sites, there will be free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution, said John Morris, CDT's general counsel.
"There will be some lawful speech on the sites that are blocked," he said. "It's not blocking only unlawful speech, it's blocking some lawful speech as well."
The bill, if passed, could also embolden other countries to block U.S. websites, Morris said. A decade ago, France attempted to block Yahoo from selling Nazi memorabilia, and in recent years, Turkey has blocked YouTube because the site has refused to block access to content the Turkish government has determined to be illegal.
Several other countries have tried to block Web content, and the U.S. should expect more efforts by countries to shut down U.S. sites if the Leahy bill passes, Harris said. "It will be hundreds of countries making decisions for everyone else in the world," she said.
The bill could lead to a new fight over perceived U.S. control over the Internet domain name system and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Morris added. ICANN, the nonprofit that administers the domain name system, is headquartered in the U.S. and operates through an agreement with the U.S. government.
A spokeswoman for Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, wasn't immediately available to comment on CDT's concerns. But other groups praised the legislation.
Online counterfeiting and piracy is a "destructive force" that hurts the U.S. economy, said Steve Tepp, senior director of Internet counterfeiting and piracy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The bill "addresses this illegal behavior by targeting the worst of the worst counterfeiters and copyright pirates online," he said in a statement. "The assertion that this legislation equates to foreign political censorship is erroneous and does not accurately reflect this bill."
The bill targets activities that the majority of nations have agreed are illegal, Tepp added. "This bill targets illegal activity that costs American jobs and harms consumers," he said. "It is desperately needed and will send a clear signal that online counterfeiting and piracy is a crime and cannot be tolerated."
Steve Metalitz, counsel for the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA), also praised the bill. Opponents of the bill have had a "knee-jerk" reaction, he said.
"Senator Leahy's bill is trying to address a very serious problem in trying to come up with a focused and carefully fashioned remedy," he said at a Tuesday intellectual property forum hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "It potentially could be a very powerful tool [against] some of the least-defensible aspects we encounter."
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 email@example.com.