A pair of Capitol Hill proposals that target pirating of American content by foreign websites are drawing fierce opposition from major high-tech firms and making unlikely bedfellows out of legislators who oppose the bills.
The House bill, known as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), has infuriated executives from companies such as Wikipedia and Reddit, both of which will shut down their websites in protest for much of Wednesday. The two companies, along with a group of legislators that includes U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, are leading a charge against SOPA and its Senate counterpart, Protect IP Act (PIPA) -- proposals that they equate to censorship and a blow to start-up companies.
If signed into law, SOPA would allow companies who claim their content is being pirated to file complaints in court. A judge would then have the power to require Internet service providers to cut off service to offending sites and to force search engines such as Google to remove these sites from the searches.
The bill's author, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, characterized SOPA as an act that will stop "foreign rogue websites from taking jobs and profits away from America's innovators." In a statement, he said that the bill's "broad bipartisan support shows Congress's commitment to combating rogue states and ensuring that profits go to American innovators, not criminals who steal our products and damage our economy."
But Eshoo, whose congressional district includes a slew of start-up tech companies, has consistently argued that SOPA's reach is too broad and that it would have the unintended consequence of stifling local start-ups and creating uncertainty in the industry. Her House allies in this battle include several California Democrats, among them Zoe Lofgren and Mike Honda, along with Republicans such as Ron Paul, the presidential candidate from Texas, and Darrell Issa, R-49th District.
Critics in the high-tech world have also claimed that the law would require small companies to hire teams of attorneys to fight complaints that may or may not be legitimate. The bills are heavily supported by the music and movie industries, which are particularly prone to high-tech piracy.
Eshoo and Paul were two of 11 members of the House of Representatives to sign a letter in November opposing SOPA. The letter, addressed to bill author Smith, the Republican chair of the House Committee of Judiciary, and to John Conyers, the Democratic ranking member on the committee, commends the legislation's goal of targeting "rogue" foreign websites engaging in copyright infringement, but warns of unintended consequences.
"While this is a laudable goal and one we support, the SOPA's overly broad language, in its current form, would target legitimate domestic websites, creating significant uncertainty for those in the technology and venture-capital industries," the letter states.
Last month, Eshoo joined a bipartisan group that includes Issa in releasing its own framework for an anti-pirating law. The group's proposal would empower the International Trades Commission to launch investigations into accusations of copyright infringement. The ITC would have the power to issue cease-and-desist orders to provide "appropriate immunity" to companies complying with its orders.
In a statement that accompanied the framework, Eshoo said rogue websites represent "the hijacking of American genius, and must be stopped."
"But the Stop Online Piracy Act's overly broad language will seriously hinder the growth of new businesses, new investments and new jobs," Eshoo said. "The economic opportunities and innovation created by the Internet and start-ups could be crushed under the weight of SOPA."
She said she hopes the draft framework serves as "a good starting point for future discussions on how to best protect U.S. intellectual property rights."
Eshoo's proposal comes at a time when SOPA is attracting support from the majority of the House Judiciary Committee, which is still finalizing the bill. According to Politico, two-thirds of the committee is prepared to vote for the act. PIPA's opponents in the Senate, meanwhile, will consider next week whether to filibuster the proposed act, according to the site.
With action imminent, companies such as Wikipedia, the popular user-generated online encyclopedia, and Reddit have stepped up their opposition to the two legislative proposals. The administrators at Reddit, a social-media site that allows users to tag news headlines, posted a warning last week that begins, "The freedom, innovation, and economic opportunity that the Internet enables is in jeopardy." The blog post then predicts that "if we do nothing," Congress will likely pass the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and SOPA and that the president will likely sign it into law. It urges users to oppose the proposed legislation.
"There are powerful forces trying to censor the Internet, and a few months ago many people thought this legislation would surely pass," Reddit's post states. "However, there's a new hope that we can defeat this legislation."
On Tuesday, the site featured a warning that it will be "going down for 12 hours" to protest SOPA and PIPA along with a countdown to the shutdown.
The Wikipedia Foundation has also blasted SOPA, with foundation General Counsel Geoff Bringham saying in a post that the proposed legislation "represents the flawed proposition that censorship is an acceptable tool to protect rights owners' private interest in particular media."
"That is, SOPA would block entire foreign websites in the United States as a response to remove from sight select infringing material," Bringham wrote.
Wikipedia also announced its plan to shut down the English language version of its site for 24 hours, starting at 5 p.m. UTC on Wednesday (9 p.m. Tuesday on the West Coast). Sue Gardner, executive director of Wikipedia foundation, wrote in a posting that "this will be the first time the English Wikipedia has ever staged a public protest of this nature, and it's a decision that wasn't lightly made."
"We believe in a free and open Internet where information can be shared without impediment," Gardner wrote. "We believe that new proposed laws like SOPA and PIPA, and other similar laws under discussion inside and outside the United States, don't advance the interests of the general public."