Sponsors of the controversial U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act defended the legislation Wednesday, saying the proposal is needed to shut down websites trafficking in billions of dollars worth of online piracy.
Opposition to the bill, called SOPA, is fueled by the desire of giant Internet companies to protect their profit margins, said Representative Melvin Watt, a North Carolina Democrat and co-sponsor of the legislation. Opposition to the bill is "really about the bottom line" of Internet companies, Watt said during a U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill.
Some opponents' claims that SOPA will kill the Internet or result in widespread censorship of the Web are exaggerations, Watt said. "It is beyond troubling to hear the hyperbolic charges that this bill will open the floodgate to government censorship," he said. "I start from the premise that Internet freedom does not and cannot mean Internet lawlessness."
The legislation, which would enlist online advertising networks, payment processors, Internet service providers and search engines in copyright enforcement, is needed, said Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and main sponsor of SOPA. Current copyright laws don't adequately protect U.S. companies against foreign sites offering infringing and counterfeit products, he said.
"We cannot continue a system that allows criminals to disregard our laws and import counterfeit and pirated goods across our physical borders," Smith added. "The problem of rogue websites is real, immediate and widespread. And its scope is staggering. One recent survey found that nearly one-quarter of global Internet traffic infringes on copyrights."
Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and opponent of SOPA, asked a representative of the Motion Picture Association of America how many sites the organization would like to see shut down "in order to say you were successful."
"Is it dozens, is it hundreds, is it thousands?" Lofgren asked. "Do you have any idea of the scope of the number of sites?"
The Pirate Bay is one such site, said Michael O'Leary, the MPAA's senior executive vice president for global policy. "There are multiple sites out there," he said. "The problem is evolving and changing. I cannot sit here right now and tell you in good faith that I know what that number is. What I do know is that there are literally hundreds of sites out there that are engaging in this activity."
Another opponent told lawmakers that SOPA's focus on websites that "enable or facilitate" copyright infringement could open up many legitimate sites to copyright complaints and could lead to court orders effectively shutting them down. SOPA allows the DOJ and copyright holders to look at a "portion" of a site to determine whether it enables or facilitates infringement, said Katherine Oyama, copyright policy counsel at Google.
A U.S. e-commerce site with dozens of suppliers could have its payment processing service and advertising network shut down if it unknowingly has one supplier that providers counterfeit goods, Oyama said.
"Under SOPA, your entire site could be deemed to be dedicated to theft because, unbeknownst to you, a portion of your site is being primarily operated for unlawful activity," she said. "Anyone who believes they have been harmed by this single bad seller ... can send a termination notice to the payment processors that you and your other subscribers rely on."
SOPA, introduced Oct. 26, would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders to stop online ad networks and payment processors from doing business with foreign websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. The DOJ-requested court orders could also bar search engines from linking to the allegedly infringing sites and order domain name registrars to take down the websites and Internet service providers to block subscriber access to the sites accused of infringing.
SOPA would also allow copyright holders to seek court orders requiring online advertising networks and payment processors to stop supporting the alleged infringers if those businesses do not comply with requests from copyright holders. The court orders requested by copyright holders could target U.S. websites and services that enable or facilitate copyright, in addition to foreign websites.
Oyama, the only one of six invited witnesses to oppose the bill, called for lawmakers to take a more targeted approach to copyright enforcement, and some members of the committee, including SOPA sponsor Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said they are willing to work with Google and other opponents in the tech industry to resolve concerns.
But Watt and Smith questioned Google's commitment to copyright enforcement. When Oyama raised concerns that SOPA could stifle free speech by shutting down U.S. websites, Watt questioned how much of a website needs to be infringing before copyright concerns trump free speech concerns. Watt asked if a site should be shut down if 90-plus percent of its material was infringing.
Oyama didn't answer his question directly, but said Google and other opponents of the bill are concerned that SOPA would pull in many websites with protected speech on them. "The prospect of ISPs and search engines 'disappearing' entire sites when they have violated no U.S. law, but only facilitated unlawful acts of third parties, raises serious concerns," she said.
Google in August agreed to pay US$500 million to settle a DOJ complaint that it allowed Canadian pharmacies to advertise on its site, Smith noted.
Google's opposition to SOPA "should come as no surprise given that Google just settled a federal criminal investigation into the company's active promotion of rogue websites that pushed illegal prescription and counterfeit drugs on American consumers," he said.
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.