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Internet piracy debate intensifies on Senate bill

A battle has intensified over federal rules to prevent online piracy, with Hollywood, Web site operators and engineers clamoring to influence the outcome of a Senate bill.

In one corner, the U.S. Chamber, Hollywood and artists support Senator Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) bill that allows attorneys general and the Justice Department to shut down the domain names of the worst of worst offenders of copyright laws. They say companies are losing revenue from pirated movies, shows, handbags and pharmaceuticals that directly trickle down to job cuts and turmoil in their sectors.

In the other corner, public interest groups and some network engineers say Leahy’s bill, which has a slew of bipartisan co-signers, allows the federal government to overreach and could lead to censorship of the Web. They say by seizing domain names, the basic infrastructure of the Internet is disrupted.

“There is an epidemic of digital theft on broadband Internet,” said Rick Cotton, general counsel for NBC Universal and chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce cross-sector Coalition Against Counterfeiting and Piracy. “This bill is actually quite a narrow, focused effort to address a portion of that epidemic.”

Opponents of the bill disagree and, responding to concerns by public interest groups and Internet service providers, the Judiciary Committee this week tweaked the bill. Internet service providers no longer have to engineer their networks for domain name takedowns, and they get a little more slack for liabilities against them when counterfeited content travels on their networks. Justice will no longer have to publish a list of offending sites, according to the amended bill.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that helped organize an opposition letter by 89 engineers to the Senate committee, say those changes are good, but not enough. The bill still requires a takedown of domain names by law enforcement without first getting a court order.

“This helps, but in the end this is still a censorship bill,” said Peter Eckerslee of EFF. “By taking out entire domain names and making them vanish off the Internet, that domain name can have a huge amount of stuff on it that is non infringing and should be protected speech.”

Cotton, the Motion Picture Association of America, Writers Guild of America West and other groups say such concerns are overblown and that what is at stake is hundreds of millions of dollars of lost revenue by music, movie and consumer goods makers who are losing out to copycats selling their goods online and Web sites allowing the illegal trade of their goods without compensation to the rightful owners of content.

“If someone stole a TV and ran out to the street and started offering it for sale, the thief doesn’t have a First Amendment right for the sale of the stolen product. The police would arrest him,” said Howard Gantman, a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America.

By Cecilia Kang  | October 1, 2010; 3:06 PM ET
Categories:  copyright  
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