Senate Judiciary Committee set to debate legislation

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up legislation today that would expand the government’s ability to shut down so-called rogue websites that traffic in pirated content.

In the latest example of these sites’ effects on studios, more than a half-hour of footage from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1″ became available on file-sharing sites this week.

Some Internet and digital rights groups are fiercely opposed, saying the proposed legislation is too vaguely worded and would restrict Internet freedoms, but the legislation has a bipartisan list of sponsors and is being championed by studio and labor groups in Hollywood as well as the recording industry.

The entertainment community is waging a lobbying effort this week to make sure the bill clears the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act was introduced by the committee’s chairman, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and has 17 co-sponsors.

Robert Pisano, acting CEO of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, wrote in DC publication the Hill: “Bipartisan congressional efforts to crack down on these opoperations are opposed by groups who claim the First Amendment protects the rights of these sites to use the Internet for their illegal practices. But the First Amendment was not intended as a shield for those who steal, irrespective of the means. Theft is theft, whether it occurs in a dark alley or in the ether, and to attempt to distinguish the two is to undermine the most basic tenets of our criminal laws.”

The bill would enable the Justice Dept. to track and shut down websites that provide access to unauthorized downloads, streaming or the sale of pirated content. For sites located outside the U.S., the Justice Dept. 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.

A number of orgs, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee last month, arguing that the bill “would enshrine in U.S. law a legal process that would force Internet service providers to block certain communications based on content, oblige registry operators to lock domains for the entire world and create an extrajudicial blacklist of suspected content — setting a precedent we believe would reverberate around the globe.”

They have warned that sites like YouTube would have been shut down in its early years.

Supporters say the text of the bill is narrowly tailored to single out sites “dedicated to infringing activities.”

They also note that many of the concerns among Internet providers were already addressed in a revision of the legislation made shortly after it was introduced in September.

The revisions eased the liability for Internet providers and the burden they have for taking action, calling on them to act “as expeditiously as reasonable.”

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