New U.S. legislation intended to shut down foreign websites that infringe copyrights would cause major headaches because it would allow copyright holders to target legitimate Web services with "thousands" of court orders, an e-commerce trade group said.
The Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act, or PROTECT IP Act, introduced May 12 by Senator Patrick Leahy and other lawmakers, would allow copyright holders to seek court orders requiring payment processors and online ad networks to stop doing business with infringing websites.
This new legal option for copyright holders would lead to "an explosion of litigation," said Markham Erickson, executive director of NetCoalition, a trade group with members including Google, Yahoo and IAC/Interactive. "We'll start seeing thousands and thousands of these kinds of requests."
The bill would be an "unprecedented new step" in copyright enforcement, Erickson said Wednesday during a media briefing.
The PROTECT IP Act would also allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders ordering ISPs (Internet service providers) to block traffic and search engines to stop linking to sites allegedly infringing copyright.
NetCoalition is also concerned that the bill does not go far enough to protect legitimate websites and services from copyright lawsuits when they cooperate with authorities, Erickson said. Legitimate websites and services may not catch all their links or other interactions with infringing sites, but they should have legal protection if they are taking steps to shut off infringers, he said.
The trade group also wants a clearer definition of a site "dedicated to infringing activities" so that legitimate sites aren't targeted, Erickson said.
Despite the concerns, NetCoalition is working with Leahy's office on the legislation, he added. The trade group would not object to a law that allows courts to issue orders for payment processors and advertising networks to stop doing business with infringing websites, he said. Websites offering counterfeit goods or trafficking in digital piracy won't be able to survive without payments or advertising, he said.
Several groups have voiced support for the PROTECT IP Act, saying the legislation will help protect U.S. jobs and companies.
"Websites dedicated to trafficking in counterfeit products and digital theft dupe consumers, steal our jobs, and threaten the vibrant Internet marketplace," Thomas Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. "Addressing this problem is a win-win-win -- good for businesses that need to protect their IP online, good for America's economy and jobs, and good for consumers who will benefit from both."
Demand Progress, a liberal advocacy group, said the bill's court orders, requiring search engines and websites to stop linking to infringing sites, amounts to censorship. The court orders create an Internet blacklist, and "anyone 'referring or linking' to a blacklisted site is prohibited from doing so and can be served with a blacklist order forcing them to stop," the group said.
The bill would violate the free speech protections of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the group said. "Saying that Americans can't visit the same websites as Mexicans or Canadians makes a mockery of the First Amendment," Aaron Swartz, the group's executive director, said in a statement.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.