A clampdown on rogue websites

In a triumph for Hollywood industry groups, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday voted in favor of a bill aiming to crack down on rogue websites that offer pirated American content, such as music and movies.

The legislation allows the Justice Department to take down the domain names of websites that distribute stolen content. Under an amendment to the bill offered by Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a court must first find that a website is indeed violating copyright laws before taking action.

“This legislation provides law enforcement with an important and improved mechanism to stop rogue websites that are dedicated to online piracy and the sale of counterfeit goods,” said Leahy, who sponsored the bill. “Protecting intellectual property is not uniquely a Democratic or Republican priority — it is a bipartisan priority, and this legislation is a great example of our ability to come together to on an issue that is critical to our economic and job growth.”

Before the bill went to a voice vote, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) lauded the impact the bill will have, but also acknowledged it’s not a panacea to the growing problem of piracy.

”The bill we’re considering today provides yet another tool to try to combat this plague of piracy,” said Feinstein. “Unfortunately, it’s not a silver bullet. But it’s very useful step in crafting this legislation.”

Entertainment industry trade groups have loudly voiced support for the bill, arguing that their industries have seen their revenues gravely dented by sites that offer illicit content for free. The trade groups, including the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, have lobbied Washington hard in past years for more stringent rules that punish rogue websites.

Hollywood cheered the committee’s decision, calling it a boon for entertainment jobs.

“The economic impact of these activities — millions of lost jobs and dollars — is profound,” said MPAA president Bob Pisano. “As part of a wide ranging coalition of workers and businesses whose jobs and financial health have been placed at risk by content theft, we commend Senators Patrick Leahy and Orrin Hatch for their leadership on this bill.”

Entertainment industry groups weren’t the only ones pleased with the results of today’s vote. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses from a range of industries, said the committee’s bi-partisan support of the bill “is mirrored by broad support in the business community and labor organizations.”

“Today’s vote comes as Americans prepare to go online to do their holiday shopping in record numbers,” said David Hirschmann, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center. “This legislation is needed to help protect them from online predators whose websites are disguised to look legitimate, but who do not hesitate to sell dangerous fakes that pose serious health and safety risks or to steal consumers’ identity or infect their computers with malicious viruses.

But the legislation has also received a barrage of harsh criticism from advocacy groups and technology companies, who argue that the legislation goes too far. Advocacy groups have warned that the legislation will threaten freedom of expression on the Internet. Technology companies, such as Google and Yahoo, have also expressed concern about the bill, saying it oversteps enforcement boundaries.

“We are disappointed that the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning chose to disregard the concerns of public-interest groups, Internet engineers, Internet companies, human-rights groups and law professors in approving a bill that could do great harm to the public and to the Internet,” said Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of consumer group Public Knowledge.

Leahy rejected claims that the bill violates First Amendment rights on the web during today’s executive session.

“That argument contradicts the basic tenet of copyright law which, as Justice O’Connor explained, is the very ‘engine of free expression,’” Leahy said. “Copyright law does not exist in opposition to our guarantee of free speech, it supports it.”

Feinstein acknowledged the opposition and said she hopes the committee will be “open-minded” to alternatives proposed by opposing parties.

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