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Changes afoot for polarizing piracy bill

Opposition from tech sector to key provisions remains high

The major sponsor of the Senate’s version of controversial anti-piracy legislation said that changes are afoot, perhaps to one of the bill’s most controversial provisions to block the domain names of sites dedicated to trafficking in infringing movies, TV shows and music.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) said that he is proposing more study of a provision of the Protect IP Act that would enable authorities to obtain a court order to get Internet service providers to use the domain name system to prevent access to so-called foreign “rogue” websites.

“I remain confident that the ISPs — including the cable industry, which is the largest association of ISPs — would not support the legislation if its enactment created the problems that opponents of this provision suggest,” he said in a statement. “Nonetheless, this is in fact a highly technical issue, and I am prepared to recommend we give it more study before implementing it.”

Leahy said that he and other co-sponsors “continue to hear” concerns about the provision from engineers, human rights groups, and others, that he has heard from his own constituents. Supporters had seen the provision as a major tool to curbing foreign websites that operate outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts yet pose some of the greatest problems with piracy.

Michael O’Leary, senior executive vice president for global policy and external affairs for the MPAA, said that Leahy’s leadership “will forge an even broader consensus for this bill.” But he added, “We are confident that any close examination of DNS screening will demonstrate that contrary to the claims of some critics, it will not break the Internet.”

The Protect IP Act is scheduled for a cloture vote in the Senate when it returns to session, allowing it to get to the floor. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), one of the bill’s chief opponents, has vowed a filibuster.

Wyden said that it was “welcome news” that supporters “are finally accepting that it contains major flaws.” But he said that beyond the domain name provisions, the bill “still establishes a censorship regime that threatens speech, innovation, and the future of an American economy.” He signalled that he still planned to try to block the legislation.

The legislation has a list of 40 co-sponsors in the Senate, and a companion bill in the House, the Stop Online Piracy Act, is expected to pass the Judiciary Committee. And while the list of bipartisan supporters is met by a number of opponents from both parties, critics of the legislation have been successful in sounding the alarm. In the past copyright legislation has not generated much attention outside affected industries, but news of the bills have been via social media and the sites themselves, most often in opposition. Wikipedia said that it is considering a “blackout” to protest the proposed legislation, and other sites reportedly are considering the same. An industry rep told Variety that some Senate staffers say their offices are being flooded with emails in opposition, to the point where the legislation has become the No. 1 issue they are hearing about this week.

Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Assn., wrote an op-ed timed to the Consumer Electronics Show charging that the legislation is the result of “copyright extremists” with huge resources to influence the legislative process. Markham Erickson, executive director of the NetCoalition, a group that includes Google and other Internet companies, said that Congress has yet to consider the impact that the complex legislation will have on cybersecurity.

Champions of the legislation, however, complain that it has been unfairly attacked as “breaking the Internet,” even though it is aimed not at user-generated sites like YouTube but ventures that have the clear purpose of trafficking in pirated content. In the works are ad spots to run on TV in the districts of key supporters of the legislation.

“The rhetoric is so divorced from reality,” O’Leary said in an interview. “The truth is you can scare people and push ‘send’ pretty easily.”