WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan cadre of lawmakers proposed a new framework for an anti-piracy bill late Thursday night, hoping to derail leading legislation that hundreds of law professors and web experts believe would crack the foundation of the Internet.
At issue is how Congress should deal with foreign websites that pirate American goods, particularly movies and music. For months, broad majorities in both the House and Senate have been promoting legislation that grants radical new tools to both the American government and private corporations to take action against rogue foreign websites, but the tactics deployed have alarmed Silicon Valley giants and free speech advocates alike.
Foreign piracy has traditionally been an international trade issue. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative keeps a formal, public blacklist of nations that do not respect American intellectual property -- a list which U.S. administrations frequently use as a foreign policy cudgel against other governments on behalf of favored American businesses. The U.S. International Trade Commission, moreover, regulates imports of foreign goods that benefit from unfair trade advantages. Both the World Trade Organization and the World Bank arbitrate trade disputes between nations.
Nevertheless, for months lawmakers have been wrangling over a foreign piracy bill without resorting to trade policy. Both chambers have put forth legislation, dubbed the "Stop Online Piracy Act," in the House, which would allow the Department of Justice to determine which individual foreign websites are "primarily dedicated" to piracy and shut them down if they are using a U.S.-based hosting service. It would also allow American movie studios and other copyright owners to demand that U.S.-based web hosting companies bring down entire domains if they believe that domain is "primarily dedicated to piracy." A web hosting service could challenge this demand, and the dispute would then be decided in court.
"The Act would allow the government to break the Internet addressing system," wrote 108 law professors in a July letter to Congress. "The Internet’s Domain Name System ('DNS') is a foundational building block upon which the Internet has been built and on which its continued functioning critically depends. The Act will have potentially catastrophic consequences for the stability and security of the DNS."
Late on Thursday, a handful of tech- and free-speech friendly lawmakers delivered the outline of a counterproposal. Instead of private corporations having the ability to bring down websites, they would be able to lodge a formal complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission. The ITC would then conduct an inquiry into the website's activity, and recommend whether or not to rule the site an unfair import. If the ITC ruled against the site, American payment processors and advertisers would be barred from doing business with the site -- but no DNS blocking would be deployed, and the website would remain intact, albeit cut off from American funds like other rogue foreign operations.
The framework for the counterproposal was put forth by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) joined with Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) and John Campbell (R-Calif.).