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SOPA meets strident opposition at House hearing

Several lawmakers worry bill is being pushed too fast

A controversial bill to prevent online piracy by rogue foreign sites appears poised to pass the House Judiciary Committee despite strident opposition from some lawmakers.

At a sometimes contentious hearing held Thursday to mark up the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), several lawmakers expressed concern over the speed with which the proposed legislation is being pushed through the House.

Several called on Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, (R-Va.), to schedule a hearing for experts who could testify on the security and technical ramifications of the proposed legislation; others wanted more time to digest recent amendments.

There was little indication that either of those requests were likely to to be entertained. And proposal after proposal to amend the bill to make it more palatable to opponents were shot down, raising the possibility that it will gp to the full House soon.

Committee members met into the evening to discuss proposed amendments after a request to adjourn failed on a voice vote.

The SOPA bill has been at the center of a raging controversy since it was introduced earlier this year by Smith, along with John Conyers, (D-Mich.), Bob Goodlatte, (R-Va.), Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and several other lawmakers.

The measure would give U.S. law enforcement authorities, as well as copyright and IP owners, more tools to go after foreign websites dedicated to copyright infringement, IP theft and counterfeiting.

The original version contained provisions that would have given copyright and IP owners the right to ask online advertising networks and payment service providers such as MasterCard and PayPal to cut off services to allegedly infringing sites. An amended version introduced Wednesday now requires content and IP owners to get a court order before they pursue such action.

However, several other controversial provisions remain largely intact. One is a provision that would let the government ask ISPs to use DNS blocking, filtering and other "feasible and reasonable" methods to cut off access to foreign infringing websites from the U.S. It would also let the government order search engine companies such as Google to disable links to infringing sites in search engine results.

Supporters of the bill insist such measures are needed to counter the theft of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of IP and content annually by websites outside the reach of U.S. law. The have repeatedly said that SOPA is solely focused on the most egregious foreign websites.

"All we are trying to do is to stop online piracy," said Conyers during today's hearing. "What could be the motive behind people or organizations that don't think stopping online piracy" is important, he said.

"If somebody thinks a bill of this magnitude will get stalled because we will get tired..., (they) have got it wrong," he said.

Goodlatte said that SOPA would address a "gaping loophole" that allows piracy; he vowed to press on, as well.

Critics contend that the bill could lead to an Internet censorship regime where content and IP owners would have inordinate power to shut down not just rogue foreign sites, but U.S. sites, too.

They argue that any website hosting user-generated content, such as a YouTube or a Flickr, would be vulnerable to SOPA's provisions.

Currently, the Digital Millennium Copy Right Act (DMCA) allows content holders to ask sites like YouTube to take down infringing content. But the sites themselves have a Safe Harbor from prosecution.

SOPA critics contend the law would let content owners do an end run around those protections.

Jared Polis, (D-Colo.), warned that the search engine suppression and DNS blocking provisions built into SOPA would "Balkanize" the Internet.

Rep. Dan Lungren, (R-Calif.), expressed concern over the uncertain security implications of such measures and suggested the committee should hear from Internet security experts before moving ahead.

"Why is there this rush to judgment?" Lungren asked. "Why can't we slow down and take a look."

Lungren insisted that his call for testimony from experts was not an effort to stop the bill but to simply better understand its technical and security implications.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, (D-Calif.), said it would be "preposterous" to ignore the serious technical and security concerns that have been raised about SOPA by some of the Internet's leading scientists and architects.

Rep. Darrell Issa, (R-Calif.), one of the most vocal opponents of the bill, insisted that SOPA as written is not ready for prime time and insisted that several changes need to be made to make it more acceptable.

He dismissed suggestions that the bill is aimed only at foreign sites and called SOPA "a domestic bill lock, stock and barrel."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com .

Read more about internet in Computerworld's Internet Topic Center.


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