D.C. fight from the right on piracy bill

GOP new media strategist-blogger rallies opposition

At last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, one group passed out a flyer with a Tea Party tone: “Seized: Don’t let Obama & Holder shut down your website.”

“Hollywood and Barack Obama’s intellectual property Czar want to make it even easier for the government to shut down websites,” it read.

The man behind it is Patrick Ruffini, a prominent GOP new media strategist and blogger, who has been taking aim at a proposed piece of tough new anti-piracy legislation by appealing to the party’s libertarian streak.

To judge from a Senate hearing on Wednesday, Hollywood’s drive to pass is a matter of not if, but when. Listening to speaker after speaker, you got the feeling that to come out against these new measures would be like being against going after a burglar who breaks into your home.

Yet even though the Judiciary Committee already has expressed strong bipartisan support, there’s also reason for its champions not to get too overconfident.

This is a different, volatile Congress, where an influx of new freshmen in the House and an expanded Tea Party caucus has changed the dynamic.

As conceived last year, the proposed Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act would allow the Justice Dept. to move more quickly to shut down sites dedicated to infringing activities. Federal authorities could seek an order from the court demanding that a site’s registrar suspend or lock the domain name, and, if a site is located overseas, requires a service provider to take “reasonable steps” to prevent access to the domain name. The bill also is aimed at cutting off the money to such sites from payment processors and ad services.

Ruffini thinks that the view of the legislation could be much different, particularly with the infusion of so many freshmen who are “less amenable to give the administration this new type of power.”

“Nobody wants piracy. Nobody wants people stealing legitimate content,” said Ruffini, who launched a petition and website, DontCensorTheNet.com, against the bill last fall. “The question is, ‘How do you go about doing that?’ Is this the most effective means of going about this?”

Rightly or wrongly, the assumption has been that the chief opponents of the act, or COICA as it is called, have largely come from the left: digital rights advocates and consumer groups who also have been waging a campaign in favor of robust net neutrality rules.

Ruffini, however, sees the legislation in the same vein that a unified front of congressional Republicans view the FCC’s recently passed net neutrality guidelines: Government overreach.

This week, Daniel Halper, deputy online editor of the conservative Weekly Standard mag, wrote that the bill will set a “dangerous precedent that authoritarian regimes can point to in their own efforts to censor the Internet.”

The ACLU and human rights orgs raised similar concerns in a letter to the bill’s chief sponsor, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), last fall, but it had little effect. The Judiciary Committee passed the bill unanimously, only to stall when Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), an opponent, was able to block it from reaching the floor in a procedural move.

The bill is not yet on the House’s radar screen, and Leahy has not yet reintroduced a modified version of the legislation, which is aimed at helping a range of copyright industries, from clothing manufacturers to pharmaceutical companies, protect their property. There are still signs of significant support, including that of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. And two co-sponsors of the bill last year included Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) — lawmakers not known to embrace the entertainment industry’s wishes.

Moreover, supporters cry foul that Ruffini has been working for Google, often at odds with Hollywood when it comes to copyright responsibilities, but he says “this is unrelated to that.”

One industry rep dismisses the anti-COICA effort as hardly generating a grassroots wave: “It’s easy to pass out a flyer.” Others are lining up.

Famed First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams recently came out in favor of the bill and said it protects free speech.

Another conservative online strategist, Jon Henke, who is a friend of Ruffini’s, even countered the campaign with his own CPAC flyers supporting the legislation. Henke sees linking COICA to the actions of dictatorial regimes as “not necessarily logically consistent,” and adds that it is just not hard to define what is a legitimate site and what is not. It’s probably in the industry’s interest that the argument remain so cut and dry. “This is explicitly, overtly copyright theft,” Henke says.

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