Senators Explore New Website Seizure Options
U.S senators will introduce legislation this year targeting websites that traffic in digital piracy or counterfeited goods, said the primary sponsor of a controversial bill proposed in 2010 that would give government agencies more authority to shut down those sites.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, promised Wednesday to introduce a bill targeting so-called rogue websites, although he did not say how closely the new legislation would mirror the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA).
COICA, which the Senate failed to act on, would have given the U.S. Department of Justice new authority to force domain name registrars to shut down websites that allegedly infringe copyright.
Leahy and other senators noted complaints about COICA during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, although several argued that the U.S. government needs to take major new steps to protect U.S. businesses against copyright infringement.
"I contend that America is on the losing end of the largest transfer of wealth through theft and piracy in the history of mankind," said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat. "We're doing virtually nothing about it."
Since late November, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has obtained court orders to shut down more than 100 websites for alleged copyright infringement, even without the new authority in COICA. On Monday, ICE announced it had seized the domain names of 18 websites offering counterfeit jewelry, handbags, perfume and other products.
Critics of COICA have said it would trample free speech rights on websites that offer forums, reviews and other information in addition to selling digital or physical goods. Several Internet engineers have suggested that COICA could fragment the Internet's domain name system, with other countries emboldened to block websites for a variety of reasons.
But senators heard little criticism of COICA during their hearing. Representatives of groups that have voiced the most opposition to the bill did not appear as witnesses.
Representatives of Visa and domain-name registrar GoDaddy.com said they would prefer a process in which companies work together to fight online copyright infringement, but neither representative said they opposed the bill. GoDaddy recommends "targeted, narrowly tailored" legislation, but the company supports the goals of COICA, said Christine Jones, the company's executive vice president and general counsel.
Thomas Dailey, vice president and deputy general counsel at Verizon Communications, suggested several changes to COICA that would make it more acceptable to Internet service providers, including a limit on the number of domain-name seizures the DOJ could ask for before ISPs are paid for the cost of compliance. Dailey also suggested that domain-name seizures be used only when less restrictive methods won't work.
Several other groups have raised other concerns, Dailey told senators. "We also note that the new approaches to combating online piracy in the legislation raise complex issues, and that government-sanctioned website blocking represents a major shift in U.S. policy that requires careful consideration and input from a wide variety and group of stakeholders," he said.
Witnesses at the hearing questioned why search engines were delivering search results and selling advertising to websites that sell counterfeit or pirated goods. "You've got to stop selling your product to the bad guys," Jones said. "There's no reason for that."
Representatives of Google and Yahoo did not respond to a request for comment.
Author Scott Turow and Tom Adams, president and CEO of language-learning software maker Rosetta Stone, both urged senators to take bold new steps to protect U.S. intellectual property. People using search engines can find dozens of websites selling fake Rosetta Stone software, Adams said.
"Over the past several years, we've frankly been under attack, by pirates and counterfeiters," Adams said. "American companies today are losing the battle against these counterfeiters."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.