Lawmakers Skeptical of Criticisms of Antipiracy Bill

Key House Judiciary Committee members questioned the motives of some opponents of legislation to fight piracy and counterfeiting on foreign websites on Wednesday, saying some of the critics are profiting from infringement.

"The obstinate opposition since the day [the bill was introduced] is really about the bottom line," Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., ranking member of the Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet Subcommittee, said during a hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Act. "Sites that specialize in stolen goods attract lots of users and lots of ads."

Watt and other committee members argue that some of the criticisms are overblown. They say opponents have failed to offer any concrete alternatives to fight the growth in offshore pirate websites offering TV shows, music, and other content as well as counterfeit medicines and other products.

Watt's camp was particularly critical of Google, which has joined with other leading Internet firms like Facebook and Twitter to oppose the bill. Some lawmakers and content owners say Google has not done nearly enough as a search engine and online ad provider to address the problem.

Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, pointed to the recent $500 million forfeiture Google agreed to pay as part of a settlement with the Justice Department over allegations that the firm allowed ads to be placed on illegal online pharmacies.

"Given Google's record, their objection to authorizing a court to order a search engine to not steer consumers to foreign rogue sites is more easily understood," said Smith, the bill's sponsor.

But Google Copyright Counsel Katherine Oyama, testifying on behalf of several Internet firms and groups, said that while Google and other opponents acknowledge online piracy is a serious problem, they believe the bill is too broad and could target legitimate websites, chill investment in new innovations, and undermine the integrity of the Internet and efforts to enhance the security of the Internet's domain-name system.

One of the most controversial aspects of the bill would allow the Justice Department to seek a court order requiring U.S.-based service providers to redirect users from sites deemed to infringe copyrights and trademarks.

Google and other critics of the provision say it can easily be circumvented. Instead, Oyama urged the panel to focus on cutting off the money offending websites earn from online ads or from payments made by customers using legitimate payment processors.

"If you can choke off payments, you would be incredibly effective without introducing collateral damage," said Oyama, who was the only critic among the six invited to testify.

Oyama noted that the approach appears to have been successful in targeting the antisecrecy site WikiLeaks, which recently announced it may have to shut down because it lacks funding after payment processors cut off access to their services.

But "that approach has some limitations," said Maria Pallante, the register of copyrights for the U.S. Library of Congress. She noted that it would not target sites that do not include advertising and offer illegal content for free.

Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet Subcommittee chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va, who helped craft the bill, pleaded with critics to suggest concrete changes in writing that could address their concerns with the legislation. "Some have argued that this legislation would break the Internet," Goodlatte said. "As cochairman of the congressional Internet caucus, that's the last thing I want to do."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said after the hearing that she has been in talks with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., about developing an alternative legislative approach to the Judiciary bill. Both lawmakers said they cannot support the bill in its current form. Lofgren said she believes the Judiciary bill "can't be salvaged."

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Juliana Gruenwald is a special correspondent for National Journal Daily and a technology writer for National Journal's Tech Daily Dose

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