Bill has garnered bipartisan support

Responding to concerns from Internet providers and online firms, Senate lawmakers have eased provisions in legislation aimed at shutting down websites that provide access to pirated films, TV shows and music, as well as other counterfeit goods.

The bill, introduced in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, has garnered bipartisan support as well as the backing of Hollywood’s studios and unions.

But several consumer groups raised red flags this week, charging that it threatens even legitimate sites, some of which may feature unlicensed user-generated content, which is much more difficult to police. On Tuesday, a number of orgs — including the Consumer Electronics Assn., the American Library Assn. and the Center for Democracy and Technology — sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), calling for “careful deliberation” of the bill because it presented “numerous legal, political and technical issues,” including its impact on “consumers, educational institutions, innovative technologies, economic growth and global Internet freedom.” Some orgs, such as a group of 87 Internet engineers and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have warned of censorship.

The bill’s champions, however, say it is carefully tailored to target sites primarily designed to offer pirated content.

The bill would enable the Justice Department to track and shut down websites that provide access to unauthorized downloads, streaming or sale of copyrighted content. For sites located outside of the U.S., the Justice Department could ask a Washington, D.C., federal court for an injunction that would prevent domain registrars from resolving to an infringing domain name’s Internet protocol address.

On Wednesday, Leahy said they are striking a provision that would have authorized the Justice Department, without a court order, to publish a list of domain names that provided access to websites dedicated to infringing activities — something that some interest groups said amounted to a “blacklist.” Other amendments will ease the burden on Internet providers and payment processors to take action against infringing sites, requiring only that they act “as expeditiously as reasonable.” And it gives Internet providers and others more explicit protection from liability if they take action.

Voting on the bill Although there had been anticipation that the Judiciary Committee would vote on the bill today, that will be delayed until after the midterms, as the Senate was set to recess.

Peter Eckersley, senior staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was unimpressed with the latest version. “Let me put it this way: They have taken a mind-bogglingly bad idea and have merely made it an extremely bad idea,” he said.

But the legislation continues to have the support of a variety of industry groups, many of whom have been engaged in an aggressive lobbying effort in the past few days to push back against the idea that the bill would pose a threat to Internet freedom.

Patrick Ross, executive director of the Copyright Alliance, said that although there were changes to the legislation, “the end result of greater resources and involvement at the federal level will be a welcome development in combating a growing threat to American creativity and jobs.”

The Writers Guild of America West, which has in the past expressed concerns that some anti-piracy efforts could overreach, endorsed the bill. Its president, John Wells, wrote to Leahy that they are “encouraged by the development of anti-piracy efforts that respect free speech and the right to privacy.”

“By creating a legal process empowering the Department of Justice to shut down websites hosting or streaming unauthorized content, this bill achieves both and strikes at the pocketbooks of Internet pirates,” he wrote.

A coalition of other unions — including the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild of America, AFTRA and IATSE — sent a letter to Leahy and Sessions, charging that opponents were using “misinformation and fear tactics.”

“We respect the rights of business and interest groups to raise thoughtful questions for open discussion and debate, but we must speak up when such groups organize campaigns dedicated to paralyzing the legislative process and half-truths and absurd misrepresentations of civic rights,” they wrote.

Nancy Fox, national director of government relations and policy for SAG, said that they remain “extremely supportive” of the bill and said that it reflects a “fair balance of various interests.” “We do not believe the amendments to the bill undermine its purpose.”

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