Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Senate Panel Passes Controversial Online Piracy Bill

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The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday unanimously passed a bill that would give the Department of Justice new authority to crack down on website operators at home and abroad trafficking in knock-off or stolen goods and pirated digital content.

The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) now heads to the Senate floor, where it faces a narrow window for debate in the lame-duck session, though it enjoys strong bipartisan support, with 18 senators signed on as sponsors or co-sponsors.

Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), one of the authors of the bill, called it “one of those … rare pieces of legislation supported by both the Chamber of Commerce and labor.” The bill has also seen strong backing from the music and movie industries, which have long lobbied for stronger copyright protections and more rigid enforcement penalties.

But the bill is hardly without its opponents. Leahy and fellow sponsor Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) describe the legislation as an effort to crack down on “rogue” websites whose primary objective is to traffic in infringing goods and services. But digital-rights groups such as Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have objected to provisions in the bill that they say will overreach, subjecting lawful websites and other online players to unwarranted scrutiny and, potentially, penalties.

“We are disappointed that the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning chose to disregard the concerns of public-interest groups, Internet engineers, Internet companies, human-rights groups and law professors in approving a bill that could do great harm to the public and to the Internet,” Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn said in a statement.

“We look forward to working with the committee next year to craft a more narrowly tailored bill that deals with the question of rogue websites.”

The bill that cleared the committee this morning faces an uncertain future with bracing debates over tax and appropriations looming. A Leahy staffer acknowledged the uncertainty of the Senate calendar, telling that the chairman “will be looking for opportunities to advance the legislation,” but declining to speculate on the bill’s chances of becoming law this session.

Leahy and Hatch replaced the initial legislation with a substitute amendment (available here in PDF format), which came in partial response to the concerns that legitimate websites and service providers could get caught in a copyright dragnet under the original language. The version that passed this morning included shields against legal liability for providers of domain names providers and other services.

But the bill contains language directing domain name providers, payment processors and advertisers to cut off service to an offending site after being served with a court order. Opponents have warned that COICA could stretch the accepted definition of secondary liability to trip up ad networks or other online players found to have a transactional relationship, however distant, with an offending site.

The bill also carves out a novel path for the Justice Department to pursue legal action against infringing website, particularly those administered through foreign registries. Critics have argued that the bill would create a dangerous framework for U.S. law enforcement authorities intervening in foreign businesses where jurisdiction is far from clear.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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