The Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee is pushing back against critics like Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and Facebook who say that impending piracy legislation is a draconian mistake. In a statement, the chairman said that free speech concerns about the bill are “false and misleading” and that law-abiding websites have nothing to fear. The remarks come ahead of a hearing tomorrow that has suddenly grabbed the attention of both Washington and Silicon Valley.
The fuss is about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a law that is nominally designed to help American companies shut down websites that sell counterfeit or pirated merchandise. Earlier versions of the legislation have attracted controversy for months but, in the last week, SOPA has suddenly become a national flash point with Hollywood and the Chamber of Commerce on one side and Silicon Valley on the other.
Technology companies, journalists and law professors fear the law is a Trojan’s Horse that will allow copyright owners to subvert long-standing protections that have allowed companies to build the Internet without fear of being sued. Meanwhile, studios and brand owners claim that rogue websites can easily dodge existing laws and that tougher measures are necessary.
The rhetoric has become pitched on both sides. A Democratic Congresswoman has claimed the bill spells “the end of the Internet as we know it” while its supporters have portrayed the proposed law as a patriotic anti-crime measure. This week, the opponents appear to have gained momentum as a result of extensive media coverage and the unusual spectacle of rivals like Google, Facebook and Twitter standing together to denounce the bill. To quell the criticism, the House Judiciary Committee has released a “Facts & Myths” sheet while Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tx) released a statement that says only bad guys need to worry:
Claims that the Stop Online Piracy Act would limit lawful free speech on the Internet are false and misleading. This bill specifically targets websites that are dedicated to the illegal sale and distribution of counterfeit material and products. It does not target the lawful activity of legitimate websites. Because this bill focuses on illegal activity, legitimate and lawful American businesses should have nothing to worry about.
Smith’s statement reiterates an often-repeated argument that the bill is just intended to close a loophole that prevents the government from shutting down foreign websites that facilitate criminal activity.
This is unlikely to assuage critics, however. Professor Mark Lemley, a Standford professor and renowned expert on intellectual property, believes the bill is drafted so broadly that it will empower copyright holders to try new tactics like blocking ads and credit card transactions. In an email to paidContent, he also pointed to language in the bill such as “engages in, enables, or facilitates” that gives the government the theoretical power to shut down Facebook and Google.
“So I think the threats are very real,” wrote Lemley. Other critics have argued that the bill will cause the government to warp the fabric of the Internet by tampering with basic architectural fixtures such as the domain name systems.
Tomorrow’s hearing, scheduled for 10 am, is regarded as a fix by some because five of the six witnesses will be speaking in favor of the bill. Google is slated to be the lone opponent.
The ultimate fate of the bill is likely to lie with the Senate, however. Although a Senate version of the bill known as the “Protect IP Act” appears to have majority support, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Or) has vowed to filibuster the bill. Politico says he has a chance to do so by threatening to use up valuable floor time ahead of impending debates super-committee budget debates.