Anti-piracy bill stalls in Senate amid controversy

Bill seeks to blacklist, hide domain names believed to host copyright infringements

On Nov. 19, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which allows the government to use court orders to shut down websites thought to infringe on copyright. Also known as S.3804, COICA was introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy on Sept. 20 as an attempt to prevent the spread of piracy websites.

Under the bill, a blacklist of domain names is formed, and the Attorney General may blacklist domain names with the consent of the judicial district in which the domain name registrar is located. The legislation allows the government to lock domain names and remove websites from view.

“Each year, online piracy and the sale of counterfeit goods cost American businesses billions of dollars and result in hundreds of thousands of lost jobs,” said Leahy. “The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act will protect the investment American companies make in developing brands and creating content and will protect the jobs associated with those investments. Protecting intellectual property is not uniquely a Democratic or Republican priority — it is a bipartisan priority.”

Despite the stiff opposition of public interest groups, such as the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), COICA passed with a 19-0 vote and is now awaiting the vote of the full Senate. Part of the bill’s success was due to its support by entertainment industries, which were losing revenue due to pirated material that was leaked onto the Internet and hoping S.3804 would help alleviate the problem.

Many MIT students also seem to oppose the recently passed bill. “It isn’t appropriate for our government to put such a tight control over the Internet,” Rex Lam ’14 said. “The entertainment industries themselves should be responsible for preventing their produced material from being illegally copied.”

Victor Hung ’14 agreed that although industries may be losing revenue to Internet copyright infringement, it isn’t the government’s job to counter this problem. “COICA may have a strong effect on websites with copyright issues, but some of these sites may be able to work around the law and still continue to exist,” he said.

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Directors Guild of America, the International Alliance of Stage Employees, and the Screen Actors Guild noted in a letter to Congress in response to Leahy’s proposal of COICA, “Rogue sites look legitimate, but make no mistake — these sites are illegal and they are trafficking in illegally obtained content, with only one goal in mind – making money from films, television programs, and recordings that they had no role at all in creating or financing.”

Rick Cotton, chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Coalition Against Counterfeiting and Privacy, noted to The Washington Post, “There is an epidemic of digital theft on broadband Internet. This bill is actually quite a narrow, focused effort to address a portion of that epidemic.”

Peter Eckerslee of the EFF explained to The Washington Post, “This helps, but in the end this is still a censorship bill. 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.”

Many against the bill are convinced the Department of Justice is exercising authority without due process of law. The websites “dedicated to infringing activities” are determined without judicial review. Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited for the invention of the World Wide Web, spoke up as part of an effort to get people to sign a petition against COICA.

“No person or organization shall be deprived of their ability to connect to others at will without due process of law, with the presumption of innocence until found guilty,” Berners-Lee said.

Opponents add that another problem resulting from the bill is a breakdown of basic Internet infrastructure. Richard Esguerra, also part of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, spoke out against COICA in a legislative analysis article. “Generally speaking, the bill forces all the Internet ‘middlemen’ to act as if a part of the Internet doesn’t exist, even though that page may otherwise be completely available and accessible,” he said.

While the bill has passed, the final bill is still less restrictive than the original. Important changes were made to the bill after Senator Leahy proposed an amendment on Sept. 20 in response to dissatisfaction from public interest groups, engineers, and Internet service providers.

The largest change was the removal of an originally planned second blacklist, which allowed the addition of domain names without court orders. In addition, to insure that domains are accurately added to the blacklist, the Attorney General is required under the amendment to develop a process of consultation with various law enforcement agencies to execute investigations.

Following the passage of the bill, Eckerslee of the EFF published another blog post, which summarized the legislation as “ineffective, unconstitutional, [and] bad for innovation and the tech economy.” While COICA has now passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the EFF still holds objections. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, also opposes the bill and vows to keep the bill from passing.

Because senators have the power to put holds on legislation, if Senator Ron Wyden continues to oppose the bill, it is possible COICA will be dead following the end of this congressional season. In such a situation, Leahy would have to reintroduce the bill next year for reconsideration. As for now, there is little consensus about the bill outside of the Judiciary Committee; heated debate about COICA continues.