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House hearing on Stop Online Piracy Act scheduled

Opponents have designated the day of the hearing as American Censorship Day

The U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee will conduct a hearing on the controversial copyright enforcement bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act, on Wednesday, the committee has announced.

Introduced last month, the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, would allow U.S. law enforcement officials to seek court orders to stop domain-name registrars, online ad networks, search engines and payment processors from doing business with websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. The bill would allow copyright holders to seek court orders to block the allegedly infringing sites if their efforts to get online advertising networks and payment processors to stop doing business with the sites fail.

Websites operated for the purpose of infringement or having "only limited purpose or use other than" infringement would be targeted, as would sites that engage in, enable or facilitate infringement, according to language in the bill. The bill would also make it a crime, with a five-year prison term, to stream Web content without permission, in some cases.

The hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday in Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. The committee typically has live webcasts of its hearings on its website. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved a similar bill, called Protect IP, in May, although Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has blocked the bill from coming to the floor of the full Senate.

Several opponents of the bill are attempting to organize a day of online protest, also on Wednesday, called American Censorship Day.

A number of digital rights and tech trade groups have objected to the bill, with some critics saying it would allow copyright holders to target sites with user-generated content, including YouTube and Twitter. Although the bill is focused on foreign websites that sell pirated music and movies and counterfeit goods, some critics have said that broad language in the bill would allow copyright holders to target U.S. sites that don't take enough steps to limit copyright infringement by their users.

Among the groups that have voiced opposition to the bill are Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Consumer Electronics Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press, domain-name system security vendor OpenDNS and some tech venture capitalists.

Two California lawmakers, Representatives Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat, and Darrell Issa, a Republican, urged their colleagues to oppose SOPA in a letter this week. The two wrote that they support the goal of fighting online copyright infringement, and they would support "narrowly targeted legislation that does not ensnare legitimate websites."

Instead, SOPA "would give the government sweeping new powers to order Internet Service Providers to implement various filtering technologies on their networks," the letter said. "It would also create new forms of private legal action against websites -- cutting them off from payment and advertising providers by default, without any court review, upon a complaint from any copyright owner, even one whose work is not necessarily being infringed."

Several groups have expressed support for SOPA, with supporters saying more tools are needed to fight copyright infringement, especially on foreign websites. U.S. laws largely allow the U.S. Department of Justice and copyright holders to target U.S. infringers, but there's little that can now be done against foreign websites, supporters of SOPA and Protect IP say. Copyright infringement costs U.S. businesses billions of dollars a year, supporters say.

Supporters of SOPA include the Motion Picture Association of America, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Better Business Bureau (BBB), the National Consumers League, the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Association of Attorneys General, the AFL-CIO and the Business Software Alliance.

"Rogue websites are often designed to deceive consumers into believing they are legitimate by misappropriating trademarks from respected businesses and entities -- including the BBB -- to foster trust with those who visit the sites," the BBB said in letters to lawmakers last week. "However, these sites are in fact often run by criminals who purvey shoddy fakes that can in many cases endanger consumers' health and safety. Rogue sites that sell counterfeit medicines, batteries, smoke alarms and brake pads are just a few of the many examples where the criminals who operate them have put consumers at risk."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.


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