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Lines Are Drawn on Legislation Against Piracy

Edward Wyatt|The New York Times

Type “download movies for free” into Google, and up pops links to sites like the Pirate Bay, directing users to free copies of just about any entertainment   — the latest “Twilight” installment, this week’s episode of “Whitney,” the complete recordings of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Nick Rowe | Photodisc | Getty Images

For years, pirated movies, television shows and music have been on the Internet. And for just as long, Hollywood and the entertainment business have been trying and failing to stop it.

But with more and faster broadband networks as well as powerful and speedy computers, the playing of illegally copied music and movies is booming as are sales of counterfeit goods from auto parts to pharmaceuticals.

Because most pirate sites are abroad, beyond the reach of United States law enforcement, companies have been left with a Whac-a-Mole approach to shutting them down.

Now, however, two bills, broadly supported on both sides of the political aisle, aim to cut off the oxygen for foreign pirate sites by taking aim at American search engines like Google and Yahoo, payment processors like PayPal and ad servers that allow the pirates to function.

Naturally the howls of protest have been loud and lavishly financed, not only from Silicon Valley companies but also from public-interest groups, free-speech advocates and even venture capital investors. They argue — in TV and newspaper ads — that the bills are so broad and heavy-handed that they threaten to close Web sites and broadband service providers and stifle free speech, while setting a bad example of American censorship.

Google itself has hired at least 15 lobbying firms to fight the bills; Mozilla has included on its Firefox browser home page a link to a petition with the warning, “Congress is trying to censor the Internet.” A House committee plans to take up one of the bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act, on Thursday.

On the other side, some of the biggest business lobbies like the Motion Picture Association of America and the United States Chamber of Commerce are supporting the bills. Both sides, in fact, plan to spend millions of dollars for advertisements aimed at swaying consumer sentiment.

Even newly proposed changes that the House panel will consider fail to address all the legislation’s ills, opponents say. People involved in the drafting of the latest version, however, say the bill now specifically singles out only “foreign rogue Web sites.”

“Our mistake was allowing this romantic word — piracy — to take hold,” Tom Rothman, the co-chief executive of Fox Filmed Entertainment, said in an interview last week in Washington.

“It’s really robbery — it’s theft — and that theft is being combined with consumer fraud,” he said. “Consumers are purchasing these goods, they’re sending their credit card information to these anonymous offshore companies, and they’re receiving defective goods.”

Those goods include not just movies shot surreptitiously in a theater with a jiggly hand-held video camera, the companies argue, but dangerously flawed pharmaceuticals, faulty brake pads and defective smoke alarms, to name a few categories of illegally copied goods.

Each bill has attracted dozens of co-sponsors and broad support. The Senate bill, called the Protect IP Act, was overwhelmingly approved by the Judiciary Committee; a revised House bill, intended to address some initial criticisms, is scheduled to be marked up and voted on in committee before Congress adjourns for the holidays.

Many in the Internet world, however, see ominous aspects even in the revision. “There are some provisions that have improved,” said Markham Erickson, executive director of NetCoalition, a group of technology companies that includes Facebook, LinkedIn and eBay.

“Unfortunately,” Mr. Erickson said, “the amendment also creates new problems in other places and fails to correct some of the original concerns we have raised since the start of the debate.” Among them, he said, the amendment allows anyone to seek court action to restrain a Web site’s activities, even those of sites based in the United States.

Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who is the primary sponsor of the bill and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which is working on the legislation, said the immediate rejection of the amendment by technology companies showed that they were simply protecting their financial interests — and sacrificing intellectual property rights in the process.

“That’s because they’ve made large profits by promoting rogue sites to U.S. consumers,” Mr. Smith said in a statement.

Opponents say that many of the things that the legislation aims to prevent are already covered by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. Under that law, Internet sites are required to take down links to specific pirated material when asked to do so by a copyright holder. “We’ve done that more than five million times,” Katherine Oyama, a Google policy counsel, told the House committee recently.

Ms. Oyama added that Google also ejected companies from its advertising system when notified of illegal activities. Yet, as Mr. Smith and others have pointed out repeatedly, Google agreed in August to a $500 million settlement with federal and state agencies for failing to reject advertising business from pirates — specifically, online Canadian pharmacies that used Google’s AdWords program to place targeted ads promoting illegally imported prescription drugs to United States consumers.

Google officials note that it acknowledged the conduct, accepted responsibility and paid a large fine — but Google’s Web site was not shut down. Opponents of the current bills argue that under the new proposals, Google could have been shut down.

That sort of draconian measure is not where the bills are aimed, said Steve Tepp, chief intellectual property counsel for the United States Chamber of Commerce. “The targets are the rogue sites, the real bad actors,” he said, which by selling counterfeit material endanger the jobs of ordinary workers at mainstream businesses.

The jobs issue has been seized on by the bill’s supporters and has created some strange alliances: supporting the bills are both the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the Chamber of Commerce, which rarely take the same side on a business issue. On the other side, both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Tea Party Patriots oppose the legislation.

A third alternative emerged last week, as Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, and Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has been blocking the Senate bill from getting to the floor, introduced a new proposal that would make the United States International Trade Commission the arbiter for Internet disputes over copyrighted material.

“Butchering the Internet,” Mr. Issa said, “is not a way forward for America.”