Mutiny over Online Piracy; Internet Leaders Worry Legislation Could Violate First Amendment

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

Mutiny over Online Piracy; Internet Leaders Worry Legislation Could Violate First Amendment


Byline: James Gattuso, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It's one of the most contentious but least understood issues now before Congress. It's one that does not align neatly along party lines and has split the business community. The issue is online piracy - the illegal sale of copyrighted and trademarked products on rogue pirate websites. Proposals aimed at putting these rogue websites out of business, now pending in the House and Senate, would strengthen restrictions on foreign-based rogue websites, while imposing new obligations on U.S.-based firms that facilitate their operation.

These proposals address a legitimate problem. But they may have unintended negative consequences on the operation of the Internet and on free speech.

There is no doubt that websites selling counterfeit goods, including digital goods such as Hollywood movies, have proliferated on the Internet. Such activity is a form of theft, and the federal government has a legitimate role in preventing it. Currently, U.S. authorities can and do shut down domestically based pirate websites by seizing control of their domain names under asset forfeiture laws.

But a large number of rogue sites are located outside the United States, putting them largely out of the reach of U.S. authorities.

The bills now being considered in the House and Senate. The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act would undercut such rogue sites by prohibiting third parties from dealing with them.

This is how they would work: First, they allow the U.S. attorney general as well as individual intellectual property right holders to sue the alleged foreign pirate website in court. If the site is found to be dedicated to infringement, a range of third-party restrictions would go into effect.

The most controversial of these has been a requirement that Internet service providers such as Verizon directly block requests from the United States to connect to such sites. But that idea was received with a hailstorm of criticism from Internet engineers and others because it would disrupt the operation of the net, as well as weaken Internet security. …

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