House committee chairman aims to soften criticism of key provisions

Ahead of a House Judiciary Committee vote on Thursday, committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) unveiled a number of changes to proposed antipiracy legislation that aim to appease critics who say the bill is written too broadly and could stifle innovation.

The changes to the Stop Online Piracy Act, revealed Monday, narrow the definition of rogue websites dedicated to infringing activities. It also makes clear that provisions would apply only to foreign sites — an effort to alleviate concerns that the new law would create liabilities for Internet service providers and force them to police domestic sites.

A number of changes are intended to address concerns that the legislation would interfere with the architecture of the Internet, as it would require that foreign sites be blocked by preventing them from resolving to that Web address.

In the new text of the bill, Internet providers no longer would be required to redirect users when they try to access a rogue site, but they still would have to take steps to prevent users from accessing an unlawful site. The new text also calls for an “inter-agency expert” to study any impact it has on DNS.

The changes also remove a requirement in which copyright holders would first have to serve a notice to payment processors and ad networks before taking action in courts to force them to cut off support of rogue sites. Critics had charged that the provision would essentially mean that suspect sites could be cut off without being able to defend themselves in court.

The legislation, like a companion bill in the Senate, is aimed at curbing rogue websites overseas by allowing the Justice Dept. to obtain court orders to force payment processors, ad networks, search engines and ISPs to cut off support, whether by disabling links or preventing searches from resolving to a particular domain name. Smith’s changes remove a specific deadline of five days for third parties to take action against rogue sites, replacing it with language that they should act “as expeditiously as possible.”

But the changes are still unlikely to appease everyone, particularly Google, one of the chief opponents of the legislation.

That was evident as Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt spoke to reporters after giving a speech at the Economic Club of Washington on Monday, charging that the legislation would amount to “criminalizing links.” Google and other Internet firms have criticized the bills as giving them new liability to police the Internet, and they have been joined by a host of public interest groups that have raised free speech concerns.

Supporters’ “goal is reasonable, and the mechanism is terrible,” Schmidt said after his speech, according to Bloomberg News. “By criminalizing links, what these bills do is they force you to take content off the Internet. By doing so, it’s a form of censorship.”

Michael O’Leary, senior exec VP for global policy and external affairs at the MPAA, called Schmidt’s comment a “new weapon in (Google’s) arsenal of hyperbole.”

“There is broad recognition that all companies in the Internet ecosystem have a serious responsibility to target criminal activity,” O’Leary said. “This type of rhetoric only serves as a distraction and I hope is not a delaying tactic.”

He added: “Schmidt’s pleading with the audience to please stop stealing could be bolstered by Google taking concrete steps to deal with the growing problem of rogue websites.”

If the legislation passes the House Judiciary Committee, as industry reps expect, the next step would be a floor vote. With Congress wrangling over a host of other issues before the holiday recess, including the extention of a payroll tax cut, there are doubts that it will take place by the end of the year. The Senate version also has yet to make it to the floor, and one of the bill’s chief opponents, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), has vowed a filibuster.

Nevertheless, both sides in the debate over the legislation are engaging in a flurry of lobbying before the House Judiciary vote. Demand Progress said 70 representatives of tech companies and advocacy groups held a strategy session over the weekend and have launched a campaign called “Censor Everything” week, with the goal of driving “more constituent contacts to Congress than we’ve seen in years,” in the words of Demand Progress executive director David Segal.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a key supporter of the legislation, is holding an expo of counterfeit merchandise called “Rogue Website Roulette,” to be held in a Capitol Hill meeting room. Smith is scheduled to address the event, along with other union and industry supporters. Also on Tuesday, MPAA chairman Chris Dodd will address copyright theft in an appearance before progressive think tank the Center for American Progress.

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