Google, Tech Giants, Free Speech Advocates Oppose House Online Piracy Bill

The House Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Bill, which would grant ISPs and government lawyers unprecedented power to censor the Internet.

A panel of industry heavyweights testified at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Act on Nov. 16. If passed, SOPA would require search engines, payment processors, Internet service providers and ad networks to sever ties with a "rogue Website" for hosting pirated content.

If enacted, the law would empower any intellectual property holder to demand a halt of all advertising and credit card processing on an alleged rogue Website without having to go to court. Government lawyers could take enforcement a step further and go in front of a judge to obtain an injunction that would force ISPs to block all access to a site that the government claimed was distributing pirated content.

The law would not require the site owner to be notified about the case or give the site an opportunity to defend itself before the judge issues the order. The bill would also give ISPs the discretion to block access to Websites on their own if they believe the site is "dedicated to the theft of U.S. property."

An equivalent bill, the PROTECT-IP Act, passed in the Senate earlier this year, but Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., placed a hold on the bill, citing concerns about its potential to "muzzle speech and stifle innovation and economic growth." Critics said SOPA is an even worse threat to free speech and Internet commerce because it lowers the barriers on who can be considered in violation of the law.

The Motion Picture Association of America is one of the lead voices supporting the bill, followed by the United States Chamber of Commerce.

SOPA is similar to the "takedown notices" under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in which a copyright holder can demand infringing content be removed from a site by writing a letter. SOPA goes a step further, however, by allowing the holder to demand advertising networks and payment processors shut down all services to the entire site, regardless of other legal content being hosted, just by showing "specific facts" to support their claim.

Katherine Oyama, Google's policy counsel, pointed out that SOPA's definition of "rogue Websites" is poor, making it likely that plenty of legitimate sites could be targeted. The remedies are also extreme, especially since ISPs would be given immunity from lawsuits in case a shutdown was done in error.

The original intent of the legislation was to target "rogue" offshore illegal Websites operating outside of the United States' legal system, according to Markham Erickson, executive director of NetCoalition. "Inexplicably," the bill has "morphed into a full-on assault against lawful U.S. Internet companies," Erickson said, noting that mainstream Websites could be shut down with little to no notice, and products and services could be "sued out of existence." If passed, the bill would "reverse" policies that supported technology innovation and the Internet in the first place, he said.

Besides Google, Web technology giants such as Mozilla and eBay, civil rights and consumer advocacy organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Consumer Electronic Association, and IT industry groups such as the Computer and Communications Industry Association and the Center for Democracy and Technology, along with hundreds of law professors and lawyers, have flooded Congress with letters opposing the proposed law.

The hearing was also criticized for having a slate of five pro-SOPA witnesses and only one who opposed to the bill. The committee denied the Consumer Electronics Association's request to be allowed to testify.

"Concerns about SOPA have been raised by Tea Partiers, progressives, computer scientists, human rights advocates, venture capitalists, law professors, independent musicians and many more. Unfortunately, these voices were not heard at today's hearing," said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association.

Some of the bill's backers hinted that Google opposes the bill because it is making money off piracy through some of its services, such as YouTube.

"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 the committee's chairman and the bill's sponsor, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., criticized Smith and others, saying, "Impugning the motives of the critics rather than engaging in the substance is a mistake."

Without SOPA, "the U.S. copyright system will ultimately fail," testified U.S. Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante. She defended the bill as being a "measured" approach to combat piracy, and hinted that even these controversial provisions would not be enough as "additional measure or adjustments may be needed."

NetCoalition's Erickson said Pallante's testimony demonstrates "a lack of appreciation for the legal framework that has allowed the Internet and technology sector to succeed as well as a lack of interest or curiosity as to what this bill will do to the security and openness of the Internet."