Should Congress thwart Internet piracy even if it results in censorship?

Lawmakers in Washington D.C. are facing this question as they consider two bills intended to clamp down on the piracy of copyrighted material.

The Senate’s Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011 (PIPA) and the House’s companion Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) will place virtual embargoes on “rogue” websites that illegally traffic in copyrighted content.

If passed, the U.S. Attorney General could force U.S.-based companies – such as domain registrants, credit card companies, Internet service providers, and payment services – to cut all financial ties with offending sites. In addition, U.S. search engines like Google would be prevented from listing illegal websites in searches.

While these bills don’t necessarily tame the “Wild West” nature of the Internet, they amount to putting up virtual walls to keep marauders out in the wilderness.

Publishing powerhouses weigh in

Proponents of the bills include the heavyweights of the entertainment and publishing world, including Comcast, the McGraw-Hill Companies, the National Association of Broadcasters, and Time Warner. A joint press release in October from the Motion Picture Association of America and three other entertainment groups applauded the bill’s approach.

“Under the Stop Online Piracy Act, these ‘rogue websites’ would no longer be allowed to exploit U.S. registrars, registries, Internet service providers, payment processors, search engines and ad placement services to sustain their illicit online businesses,” the release said. “Attacking the financial underpinnings of these illegal sites and the criminals that operate them will help dry up profits to their illicit operations.”

Internet luminaries push for options

However, opponents say the bills could hold U.S. sites liable while rogue websites simply change their names and stay a step ahead of the law.

A joint letter submitted in November by a number of Internet giants, including eBay, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, argues that the amount of monitoring that the bill would require would risk their industry’s record of innovation and job growth.

“We cannot support these bills as written and ask that you consider more targeted ways to combat foreign ‘rogue’ websites dedicated to copyright infringement and trademark counterfeiting, while preserving the innovation and dynamism that has made the Internet such an important driver of economic growth and job creation,” the letter reads in part.

Mixed reactions from government leaders

Where do Washington State legislators stand on the bills?

The office of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, office didn’t return a request for comment, but she was not one of the original 40 senators who co-sponsored PIPA. Congresswomen Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, issued a brief statement saying she hasn’t come to a decision.

“I have real concerns with what the current bill could mean for free speech and innovation on the Internet,” she wrote.  “I expect this bill to be significantly altered if and when it comes before Congress for a vote, and I will be carefully reading any final version. Ultimately I will do what’s in the best interest of Southwest Washington consumers and will look for a solution that protects Internet freedom.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, has openly opposed PIPA and has co-sponsored a compromise bill called the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN). It attempts to address the same issues as PIPA and SOPA, but using the powers of the International Trade Commission instead of the U.S. Attorney General.

“For those foreign web sites that are determined after an investigation to be primarily and willfully infringing, the International Trade Commission will issue a ‘Cease and Desist’ order,” Senator Cantwell wrote in an email. “The ‘Cease and Desist’ order may also be served on financial intermediaries that provide services to that foreign web site, compelling financial payment processors and online advertising providers to cease doing business with the foreign site in question. This would cut off financial incentives for this illegal activity and deter these unfair imports from reaching the U.S. market.”

To learn more about the SOPA visit the House of Representatives website and for PIPA, visit the Library of Congress website. Another good resource is the site Propublica.

Federal legislation has raised questions as to whether tackling piracy will lead to Internet censorship.