Debate on new copyright enforcement bill heats up

A letter from the U.S. secretary of state says copyright protection is consistent with Internet freedom

Supporters of a controversial copyright protection bill recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives are firing back after several digital rights groups have suggested the legislation could lead to law enforcement officials targeting sites like YouTube and Twitter.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), introduced Oct. 26, would allow U.S. law enforcement officials to shut down websites alleged to enable or facilitate copyright infringement, leading some critics to say the bill would amount to government censorship of the Internet.

On Friday, the Directors Guild of America, a supporter of SOPA, distributed copies of letters exchanged between SOPA co-sponsor Representative Howard Berman, a California Democrat, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Berman, in a Sept. 8 letter, asked Clinton if the State Department's focus on pushing Internet freedoms worldwide is consistent with a policy of protecting intellectual property (IP) rights.

Opponents of IP protections bills have "repeatedly mischaracterized" Clinton's position on copyright and Internet freedom, Berman wrote, and he asked Clinton to "set the record straight." Opponents "claim that U.S. efforts to stop online IP theft may provide an excuse for regimes that suppress dissent by curtailing Internet freedom," he wrote.

Clinton, in an Oct. 25 letter, told Berman that she sees IP protection and Internet freedom as consistent goals. "There is no contradiction between intellectual property rights protections and enforcement and ensuring freedom of expression on the Internet," she wrote.

On Thursday, the Council of Better Business Bureaus joined the list of organizations supporting SOPA and related Senate legislation, the PROTECT IP Act.

"We stand with the hundreds of businesses, trade associations, professional labor organizations, state attorneys general, and district attorneys, among others, who are concerned about the serious problem of foreign rogue websites that profit through copyright infringement and the sale of counterfeit products," the BBB wrote.

SOPA would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders to block U.S. access to foreign websites accused of infringing copyright.

The bill would also allow copyright holders to seek court orders to block the allegedly infringing sites if efforts to get online advertising networks and payment processors to stop doing business with the sites failed.

Websites operated for the purpose of infringement or having "only limited purpose or use other than" infringement would be targeted, as would sites that engage in, enable or facilitate infringement, according to language in the bill. The bill would also make it a crime, with a five-year prison term, to stream Web content without permission, in some cases.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Electronics Association, an opponent of SOPA, shot back at the Motion Picture Association of America after the MPAA accused the CEA of using "sky-is-falling rhetoric" about SOPA. CEA has warned that SOPA could allow U.S. law enforcement agencies to shut down legitimate e-commerce sites, and CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro also opposed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the late '90s, the MPAA said in a blog post.

Shapiro accused the MPAA of focusing more on "gotcha" Google searches and name calling than on "the serious threat to our nation's economic future posed by this legislation."

The MPAA "went all the way to the Supreme Court to block the VCR, part of a pattern that continues to this day of using lobbying heft and legal might to delay or destroy nascent technology that challenges their legacy business," Shapiro said in a statement. "If the content community is truly committed to addressing illegal commercial counterfeiting without harming the broadband technologies that are driving our economy forward, we can and should have a dialogue about changes to [the two IP bills] that attack the parasite without killing the host."

Also this week, digital rights group Free Press voiced its opposition to SOPA.

"This bad legislation lets a corporation like Sony Music or Viacom become the Internet's judge, jury and executioner," Timothy Karr, Free Press' campaign director, said in a statement. "If the Stop Online Piracy Act is allowed to stand, we could see the private sector's police powers expand to a point that undermines the fundamental openness of the Internet."

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 grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags e-commerceTimothy KarrU.S. Department of Statelegislationinternethillary clintonintellectual propertycopyrightU.S. House of RepresentativeslegalMusic and audioMotion Picture Association of AmericaGary ShapirogovernmentDirectors Guild of AmericavideoConsumer Electronics AssociationHoward BermanInternet-based applications and servicesfree press

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