U.S. lawmakers opposed to a controversial copyright enforcement bill scheduled for a hearing Wednesday are working on alternative legislation that would be more narrowly focused on infringing websites, two opponents of the bill said.
Representatives Darrell Issa, a California Republican, and Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, are working on an alternative to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the two said Tuesday.
Instead of targeting the Internet's domain name system, as SOPA does, an alternative approach could be to set up a copyright-infringement complaint process modeled after the U.S. International Trade Commission's (ITC) patent infringement investigations, Issa said during a press conference with other SOPA opponents.
The ITC takes patent infringement complaints from U.S. companies and can bar products from being imported into the U.S. if a product is found to infringe a U.S. company's patent. The ITC conducts administrative hearings where both sides can present their case before the commission rules.
SOPA will allow copyright owners to bring court cases against any website that they don't believe is doing enough to police infringement, Issa and other opponents of the legislation said. The legislation, if passed, would require websites to be copyright police, and overturn the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's process requiring copyright owners to submit notices of infringement to websites and ask for the infringing material to be taken down, critics said.
The legislation could significantly slow the growth of the Internet in the U.S., Lofgren said. "The implications for our economy, for innovation, and for job creation would be dire," she added.
SOPA, introduced Oct. 26, would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders to stop domain name registrars, online ad networks, search engines and payment processors from doing business with foreign websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement.
SOPA would also allow copyright holders to seek court orders to block allegedly infringing websites in the U.S. and elsewhere, if online advertising networks and payment processors refuse to stop supporting the alleged infringers at the request of the copyright owners.
Critics of the legislation also complained that the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee appears to be fast-tracking the bill before opposition can build. At a 10 a.m. hearing Wednesday, five of six witnesses are likely to speak in favor of SOPA, with only Google opposed. Witnesses the Motion Picture Association of America, trade union the AFL-CIO and pharmaceutical company Pfizer have all voiced support for the bill.
No public interest groups, Internet engineers or human rights groups have been invited to the hearing, said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights group. "This is really being railroaded, without a full public debate," she said.
Backers of the bill disputed many of the concerns, saying critics were exaggerating the bill's impact on the Internet.
Lead sponsor Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, distributed a paper this week meant to dispel "myths" about SOPA.
The legislation would not "break" or censor the Internet, as some critics have said, Smith's paper said. The domain-blocking provisions in the bill have been "carefully crafted to ensure that in those instances where a block order is issued it is limited to actions similar to what currently takes place on domestic [top-level domains] and does not impose new burdens on social media and related user generated content," the paper said. "It does not require third party websites to scrub their sites and disable links."
The bill also protects free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Smith said. "The First Amendment is not a cover for engaging in criminal activity," his paper said. "The infringing websites in question have ample opportunity to participate in judicial proceedings, if they choose to do so. The bill's actions are directed toward websites that are trafficking in illegal goods or copyrighted material."
But the bill's focus on websites and technologies that "enable or facilitate" infringement casts a wide net, critics said. All websites with user-generated content and nearly all consumer electronic devices could be seen as enabling or facilitating infringement, and could potentially be targeted by copyright owners, said Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association.
With the threat of legal action from copyright holders, Web hosting and cloud computing providers would be forced to take down any material on their services that appeared to be infringing, added Christian Dawson, an organizer of the new group, SaveHosting.org. Web hosting and cloud computing service providers would be forced into a "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality, said Dawson, chief operating officer of ServInt, a Virginia Web hosting provider.
The legislation would lead to many cloud computing and Web hosting services moving out of the U.S. to avoid lawsuits, he predicted. "I see SOPA as a stimulus package for Asia and Europe and their Internet economies," he said.
The legislation is inconsistent with the U.S. Department of State's stated policy to promote Internet freedom, Sohn said. The so-called rogue websites that SOPA has targeted appear to number in the low hundreds or less, she added.
"If we were to pass a bill like this, the U.S. loses its moral authority to set an example for the world as a place for Internet freedom," she said. "This is really American-style censorship."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.