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Consensus needed on Web piracy

Editorial

The Senate plans to take up anti-piracy legislation soon, despite the lack of consensus about how to rein in pirate websites without censoring legitimate speech or stifling innovation. That would be a mistake.

January 17, 2012
  • USC student Elizabeth, 19, watches an episode of "Entourage" on her laptop. Streaming video sites let viewers see pirated shows with the click of a mouse.
USC student Elizabeth, 19, watches an episode of "Entourage"… (Los Angeles Times )

While much of the nation's capital has been engrossed in the debate over unemployment, taxes and spending, lobbyists representing a huge swath of the U.S. economy have been battling over proposals to combat foreign websites dedicated to piracy. The Senate plans to take up its version soon, despite the lack of consensus about how to rein in pirate sites without censoring legitimate speech or stifling innovation. That would be a mistake.

The bills — the PROTECT IP Act (S 968) in the Senate, the Stop Online Piracy Act (HR 3261) in the House — would authorize the Justice Department to obtain court orders against foreign piracy hotbeds. Those orders would compel Internet service providers and search engines to deter users from accessing those sites, while requiring payment processors and advertising networks to stop servicing them. The bills would also enable copyright and trademark owners to seek similar court orders against alleged piracy hotbeds regardless of where they were located.

The lead sponsors of the two bills announced last week that they were dropping or watering down the provision requiring Internet providers to block access to offending sites. The concession came in response to a chorus of objections from top online security experts, who argued that it would fragment the way traffic is directed online and undermine efforts to deter fraud and other cyber crimes. The White House joined in that chorus Saturday, saying the bills "pose a real risk to cyber security and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online." The administration went further, warning lawmakers against unleashing "unjustified" lawsuits that could slow the growth of startups and innovators.

Supporters of the legislation, including entertainment companies and businesses whose brands are counterfeited online, need to acknowledge the near-futility of trying to hide a site on the Internet, either by seizing their domain names or excluding results from search engines. They also should recognize the suspicions raised among tech companies by the original version of the House bill, which seemed to put U.S. websites at greater risk of being held liable for their users' infringements.

Meanwhile, opponents of the legislation — which include tech companies, social conservatives and civil libertarians — need to acknowledge the threat from foreign sites that make their living off copyright infringement. The Center for Democracy and Technology, a centrist tech-advocacy group, has argued for a streamlined version of the legislation focused on cutting off foreign sites' sales and advertising revenue. That may not be the complete answer, but it's a sensible first step that would minimize the potential for squelching legitimate innovation online. The various factions should work toward an agreement on that kind of approach rather than having the Senate try to ram through something that is still bitterly opposed by so much of the tech industry.

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