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.