WASHINGTON -- At a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans joined together to voice support for legislation that would criminalize much of the activity that occupies the Internet. The bipartisan bill known as the Stop Online Piracy Act would establish major new powers for corporations intent on corralling copyrighted materials -- powers that would lead to big legal bills for start-ups and Silicon Valley giants alike.
SOPA's Senate counterpart, the PROTECT IP Act, was already voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in September.
Both political parties -- flush with campaign contributions from Hollywood studios and trial lawyers -- are eager to pass the legislation. The Senate version, introduced in May, has broad support, but has been held up by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Without Wyden's hold, the legislation looks certain to pass by a landslide. The House version, introduced last month, was written by House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and co-sponsored by ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.).
"The theft of American intellectual property costs the American economy over $100 billion annually ... and thousands of American jobs," Smith declared at Wednesday's hearing.
"I am very pleased that this is a bipartisan bill, and I think that that's very important," Conyers added.
But generating all this enthusiasm is legislation that would shift the balance of power over the Internet.
Under current practice, copyright owners such as TV networks and Hollywood studios reach out to websites to request that pirated videos be taken down. Under the new regime, they could ask banks, Internet service providers and domain name registrars to stop doing business with websites that they believed were devoted to piracy. They could, for instance, go straight to YouTube's domain registration company and demand that the entire YouTube website be taken down. And if the registrar resisted, the copyright owners would have the legal ability to take the registrar to court.
That move might not be very threatening to major players, like YouTube, with expensive legal teams, but life on the Internet could be made very difficult for smaller companies and start-ups. For lawyers who litigate intellectual property issues, the bill is a godsend, guaranteeing a flood of work, no matter which party wins the case.
The bill would also alter the relationship between the government and the basic architecture of the Internet, allowing the Department of Justice, acting on behalf of aggrieved copyright holders, to perform domain name system filtering -- essentially, blocking entire websites in the name of preventing piracy.
Web experts contend this tinkering could threaten the very functionality of the Internet and make it difficult to implement key cybersecurity measures that have been in the works for years. In May, five web security experts published a 17-page analysis of the legislation's implications for online security, concluding, "The PROTECT IP Act would weaken this important effort to improve Internet security. It would enshrine and institutionalize the very network manipulation that [tech experts] must fight in order to prevent cyberattacks and other malevolent behavior on the global Internet, thereby exposing networks and users to increased security and privacy risks."
Since then, the House version of the legislation has grown still more aggressive. The Senate bill proposes to give copyright owners those new powers to sue over foreign websites only. It's the House bill that extends the draconian measures to domestic websites as well. It also sweeps in a separate bill, sponsored in the Senate by Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), to make it a felony to stream videos or mp3s of copyrighted films and songs.
A host of libertarians, Tea Party members, radical progressives, and mainstream conservatives have spoken out against the bills.
But good government advocates cannot win legislative battles against major corporations without their own corporate support. AOL Inc., eBay Inc., Facebook, Yahoo Inc. and Twitter all have opposed the bill. The single largest company attempting to stand in its way is Google -- because its business model depends entirely on an open Internet.
At Wednesday's hearing, Google was the only corporation to speak against the legislation on a panel stacked with representatives of Hollywood studios, pharmaceutical giants and intellectual property hawks from the Obama administration. Unfortunately, Google is one of the worst allies to have in Washington today, as it faces an antitrust investigation as well as government scrutiny for directing consumers to unregulated online pharmacies. Google paid a $500 million penalty in August to settle complaints involving illicit online pharmacies from the Department of Justice and the Food and Drug Administration.
Members of both parties piled on Wednesday, banging away at Google for the pharmacy scandal -- a public declaration that the company's lobbying might not help to moderate SOPA.