A bipartisan group of senators led by Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced Thursday a new version of a bill aimed at cracking down on websites that steal content or sell counterfeit goods.
The bill sets out a legal framework to go after rogue sites, which peddle everything from fake drugs to stolen movies, music, and TV shows. Many of the infringing sites reside in foreign countries, out of the reach of U.S. authorities.
The bill, dubbed the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act or PROTECT IP Act, gives the Department of Justice authority to cut the offending sites off at the knees by obtaining a court order that would force search engines, payment processors, ad networks, and Internet service providers to stop providing the sites with traffic and business.
"This legislation will add another tool to the toolbox for going after these criminals and protecting the American public," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, one of the bill's co-sponsors. Other co-sponsors include Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sheldon Whitehouse, D.-R.I., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Herb Kohl, D-Wis., Chris Coons, D-Del., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
"It targets the worst of the worst," said Rick Cotton, executive vice president and general counsel of NBCUniversal, who was one of a dozen business and labor representatives who held a conference call with press Thursday to show their support for the bill.
As digital technology has evolved, so has digital theft, growing into a $100 billion-a-year business, according to Leahy.
The cost to the U.S. is not just dollars and cents, according to several others on the press call. "The cultural implications are profound. All sorts of content won't get created because people won't be able to afford to," said Ellen Seidler, an independent filmmaker.
The PROTECT IP Act is likely to sail through the Senate Judiciary Committee, where last year's version was unanimously approved 19-0. The bill never made it to the floor because Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., put a hold on it. It will also get some movement in the House, where Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has said he'll introduce a version of the legislation.
Opponents of last year's bill charged that the bill went too far. This year's bill made some changes to address those concerns, such as narrowing the definition of an Internet site's intent to infringe.
"We appreciate the changes, but other changes have raised new issues," said Michael Petricone, senior vice president of government affairs for the Consumer Electronics Association. "We need to be careful not to incentivize needless litigation." He added, "We are also concerned about the inclusion of search engines in the bill."
So far, Wyden has stopped short of saying he would put a hold on Leahy's new legislation. Admitting the bill "addresses some of my objections and includes several of my suggestions," Wyden still insisted that it has "serious ramifications for Internet speech and commerce" because it inteferes with the Domain Name System. He also doesn't like that the bill gives additional authority to the DOJ and Homeland Security or that the bill could go after hyperlinks. "While I can't support the PROTECT IP Act in its current form, I intend to reassess the merits of the PROTECT IP Act once the Judiciary Committee has the opportunity to modify it," Wyden said in a statement.