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New Copyright Bill Targets ISPs, Search Engines

New legislation in the U.S. Senate targeted at reducing copyright piracy on the Internet would allow copyright owners to get court orders requiring Internet service providers and search engines to stop sending traffic to websites accused of trafficking in infringing goods.

The Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act, or PROTECT IP Act, introduced by 11 senators Thursday, would allow copyright owners and the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders ordering ISPs to block traffic and search engines to stop linking to sites allegedly infringing copyright.

The court orders would also apply to online advertising networks and payment processors doing business with the allegedly infringing sites.

The new bill is based on controversial 2010 legislation that would have formalized a process allowing the DOJ and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to seize domain names of websites accused of copyright legislation. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) in a 19-0 vote in November, but the bill failed to pass through the full Senate.

"Both law enforcement and rights holders are currently limited in the remedies available to combat websites dedicated to offering infringing content and products," Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chief sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. "American consumers are too often deceived into thinking the products they are purchasing at these websites are legitimate because they are easily accessed through their home's Internet service provider, found through well known search engines, and are complete with corporate advertising, credit card acceptance, and advertising links that make them appear legitimate."

Digital rights groups, including Public Knowledge and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), criticized COICA, saying the legislation didn't give website owners a chance to dispute the allegations of infringement before authorities seized their domain names.

The new bill raises similar concerns, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). "It leaves open the door to a lot of abuse" by law enforcement agencies, he said.

The bill overreaches in several areas, added Sherwin Siy, deputy legal director of Public Knowledge. The bill allows for blacklists of websites and allows copyright holders to get court injunctions against credit card companies and other businesses, he said.

"The bill as written can still allow actions against sites that aren't infringing on copyright if the site is seen to 'enable or facilitate' infringement -- a definition that is far too broad," Siy said. "At the end of the day, the bill amounts to an acquiescence to the content lobby's idea that everyone whose systems touch their content has a price to pay -- if not in direct dollars, then in deputized vigilance on their behalf."

The new bill, aimed largely at foreign websites, improves COICA in several ways, Leahy said. The new bill narrows the definition of a website that could be targeted by the court orders, and it would give ISPs, search engines and other business legal protection if they voluntarily took action against an infringing site, according to a fact sheet from Leahy's office.

Several groups, including the American Federation of Musicians, the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, voiced support for the PROTECT IP Act.

The Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) also applauded the senators for introducing the bill.

"If criminals are disrupted from registering domain names or processing financial transactions, it will be much harder for them to rip off companies and prey on consumers," Keith Kupferschmid, SIIA's senior vice president for intellectual property, said in a statement. "The importance of this bill lies in the fact that it will eliminate critical technical and financial resources that are used to move pirated and counterfeit goods."

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), a trade group representing cable-based ISPs, also voiced support for the new bill.

"This bill is important to addressing the growing issues of online piracy and illegal content distribution that are hurting America's content industry and consumers," NCTA President and CEO Michael Powell said in a statement.

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 grant_gross@idg.com.

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