Push for amendments delays House vote on biz-backed bill

The House Judiciary Committee’s debate over a major piece of anti-piracy legislation extended into the evening on Thursday, as opponents sought to introduce dozens of amendments to legislation they argue would harm the architecture of the Internet and stifle free speech.

Their opposition marked a marathon day of contentious, even absurd debate, as opponents also asked that the legislation be given additional hearings with technical experts and even a debriefing with national security officials.

But House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), a chief sponsor of the legislation, vowed to shepherd it through the committee before Congress recesses for holiday break, perhaps aware that the bill could stall out if it drags too far in to an election year.

Noting that Congress has long sought remedies to rampant copyright infringement, Smith said that he had “every intention of moving forward today, tomorrow, however long this takes.”

The legislation is backed by Hollywood studios, record labels and almost all of its major unions and guilds. A companion bill in the Senate passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously in May.

Despite the long slog, there were indication that the legislation would have the votes to make it out of committee, based on those who voted against amendments introduced by chief opponents of the legislation. In a 22-12 vote, the committee turned back an effort by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to strip the bill of one of its most controversial provisions that would require some kind of blocking of sites on the part of Internet providers. Although Smith has changed the legislation to give Internet providers some flexibility in choosing what steps they take to block access to infringing sites, Issa still opposed it.

Another amendment, also voted down, would have restricted the Department of Justice from combating piracy on behalf of pornographers. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) noted that because such a significant amount of Internet commerce is for pornography — to underscore his point he introduced the Avenue Q song “The Internet is for porn” into the record — companies that traffic in such sexually graphic material also are among the most aggressive in trying to enforce their copyrights. “It is truly a pornographer’s wet dream,” he said.

But Smith said that such an exemption would make pornography even more prevalent online, and said that such decisions should be “left to the discretion of law enforcement.”

The legislation has polarized supporters and opponents — not along partisan lines, but largely on those who seek broad Internet freedom versus those who seek stronger intellectual property protection. The bill is aimed at curbing so-called foreign rogue websites that traffic in infringing content, such as movies and TV shows but also other goods like pharmaceuticals and apparel. It would give the Department of Justice new powers to seek a court order to force payment processors and ad networks to cut off support for foreign sites, and for Internet providers and search engines to block access and links to such ventures. Another provision allows content holders to seek their own court action against foreign sites by getting payment processors and ad firms to choke off support.

Internet companies, public Internet groups and orgs like the ACLU have said that the legislation is written too broadly, without enough safeguards in the event a site is falsely accused of trafficking in infringing content.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), another chief opponent, warned that the legislation would amount to the “Balkanization of the Internet,” and said that as written it would give the U.S. government the same powers that countries like China and Iran use to suppress free speech.

That drew a strong rebuke from Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who called such arguments “nonsense” and noted that what the bill would do would be akin to existing efforts to bock child pornography, malware and spam.

Issa and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) have proposed alternative legislation that would use existing trade laws to combat infringement, with the International Trade Commission given the authority to adjudicate complaints over copyright infringement by foreign sites. But Smith said that those measures would be insufficient to combat piracy and would create a new bureaucracy.

Debate was still going on as of 7 p.m. ET, nine hours after it started.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) suggested that members of the committee still had not analyzed the technological impact of the legislation, and called for engineering experts to give testimony. “Maybe we ought to ask some nerds what this really does,” he said.

But Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), a supporter of the legislation, accused opponents of stall tactics. One fear is that by dragging the debate too far into 2012, it will stall out during an election year.

“If someone thinks a bill of this magnitude is going to stall because we got tired, they got the wrong thing coming,” Conyers said.

Easier said than done. At one point, the debate was consumed not by discussion about amendments, but the nature of the debate itself.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) raised objections when she was informed of a tweet that a fellow member of the committee, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) sent to his Twitter followers. It read: “We are debating the Stop Online Piracy Act and Sheila Jackson Lee has so bored me that I’m killing time by surfing the Internet.”

Jackson Lee called the tweet “offensive,” a statement that itself garnered a rebuke from Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). Jackson Lee refused to withdraw the comment until Smith stopped the proceedings, huddled with her for a bit, and she agreed to change her criticism of King to “impolitic” and “unkind.”

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