Can Issa, Wyden Change Piracy Debate?

As Congress returns, piracy debate at turning point

The debate in Congress over the best way to shut down foreign websites that steal U.S. copyright material and sell counterfeit goods could be about to shift. At least that's the hope of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who outlined their strategy during a Wednesday press briefing with reporters at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The unlikely partners have teamed to oppose two bills in the House and the Senate, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) that would shut down foreign websites by forcing search engines and domain name servers to block the infringing sites, an approach the lawmakers say will damage the architecture of the Internet.

Issa, Wyden and a group of bipartisan, bicameral lawmakers are pushing a bill called the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN), which would use the International Trade Commission to shut off the funds that support the infringing websites.

Issa, Wyden and the tech community know they're in for a tough fight that's shaping up to be one of the biggest fights in Washington pitting the Hollywood and the content community up against big technology.

"I am not underestimating what a tough lift this is," said Wyden, who put a hold on PIPA last year. "My goal for 2011 was to keep PIPA off the floor so we would have a chance to go to the country. I'm not going to pretend this is a walk in the park. We're up against the toughest, savviest lobbying folks." 

But their window for stopping SOPA and PIPA, which are in markup in the House Judiciary (the step before a committee vote) and scheduled for a floor vote in the Senate Jan. 24, is short.

"This a crucial window for those that want to see the Internet come out of this debate without collateral damage," said Wyden, who is planning to filibuster PIPA along with other OPEN Senate supporters Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Jerry Moran, R-Kans.; and Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Issa is hoping to pre-empt SOPA's advance in the House with a hearing on Jan. 18, the day after the House is back. The hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Issa, is a direct challenge to the Judiciary Committee, which had to pause markup of the bill at the end of the year after Issa and other members of the Judiciary committee used every tactic in the book to and change or block SOPA.

For his hearing next week, Issa has called a panel of "nerds" that will examine the impact of domain name service and search engine blocking on the Internet, a main feature of both SOPA and PIPA. He and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., have charged that previous judiciary committee hearings were stacked in favor of SOPA and failed to bring in technical witnesses.

"Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Tex. [chairman of the Judiciary Committee] is a good guy. But [judiciary members] are not techies. It's an area where judiciary doesn't spend a lot of time," said Issa.