Congress began debating Wednesday another controversial effort by the movie industry and other content makers to stem Internet piracy through federal legislation. The measure, known as SOPA, for Stop Online Piracy Act, would empower the nation's attorney general to tell search engines and other Internet providers to stop sending Web surfers to alleged piracy sites, a measure opponents describe as "an Internet blacklist."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls the proposal "the most extreme, anti-Internet, anti-privacy, anti-free speech copyright proposal in U.S. legislative history."
Some websites, such FreePress.net, turned themselves black on Wednesday to protest the legislation, which was discussed in a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
A coalition of rights holders, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, supports the effort, and claims that advocacy groups are overreacting to the legislation's provisions. It claims the law would not create a blacklist.
“Websites that blatantly steal the creativity and innovation of American industries violate a fundamental right to property,” Thomas J. Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber, said when the legislation was introduced. “Operators of rogue sites threaten American jobs, endanger consumer safety and undermine the vitality of the online marketplace." The coalition claims that "rogue sites" attract 53 billion visits per year, jeopardizing the more than $7.7 trillion of U.S. gross domestic product.
This battle of titans pits consumer groups and tech firms like Google, Facebook, and eBay against much of Hollywood.
The legislation would allow the U.S. attorney general to order pirate websites be cut off through alternations to entries in the Domain Name System (DNS), a process opponents call blacklisting. It also creates mechanisms for content owners to tell payment processors like Visa and MasterCard to stop processing payments for alleged offending sites.
The DNS proposal is most offensive to technology firms. Andrew Lee, CEO of security firm ESET, compared the technique to the "clickjacking" tools uncovered recently by FBI agents that hackers used recently to steal $14 million worth of advertising. In that scam, computer criminals allegedly altered DNS instructions to place rogue advertisements on major websites like ESPN.com, then collected the commissions.
"(SOPA) would require DNS server operators in the US to replace the correct IP address for a website with an alternate address provided by the Attorney General's Office if the website was ‘infringing,'” he wrote in an open letter to Congress. "While we are all in favor of stopping piracy, messing about with DNS and legalizing state-controlled DNS changing seems like overkill."
But Michael O'Leary, policy chief for the Motion Picture Association, rejected complaints that the law would harm consumers or stifle innovation.
"You and your colleagues have heard a great deal from those who suggest this bill, and our efforts to fight online theft, will 'break the Internet,' or harm legitimate online social media platforms and Internet services," O'Leary said, according to a written version of his testimony published by CNet.com. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
He went on to complain that the current system for removing content that violates copyright -- governed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DCMA -- doesn't work with rogue websites that ignore the law. He argued that law enforcement officials already have the right to redirect traffic away from criminal websites, and that suspected pirates would have access to due process to appeal DNS changes.
No date for a Judiciary Committee vote on the legislation, or on its companion PROTECT IP Act in the Senate, has been announced.