The US Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a controversial bill that would allow the government to seek court orders to shut down websites offering materials believed to infringe copyright.
The committee's 19-0 vote to send the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act to the full Senate earned it praise from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the US Chamber of Commerce.
The bill would allow the Department of Justice to seek court orders requiring U.S. domain-name registrars to shut down domestic websites suspected of hosting infringing materials. The bill would also allow the DOJ, through a court order, to order U.S. Internet service providers to redirect customer traffic away from infringing websites not based in the U.S.
"Rogue websites are essentially digital stores selling illegal and sometimes dangerous products," Senator Patrick Leahy, the main sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. "If they existed in the physical world, the store would be shuttered immediately and the proprietors would be arrested. We cannot excuse the behavior because it happens online and the owners operate overseas. The Internet needs to be free -- not lawless."
Critics of the legislation have said it would censor free speech online and damage the Internet.
"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," Gigi Sohn, president of digital rights group Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the committee next year to craft a more narrowly tailored bill that deals with the question of rogue websites."
The bill, with 17 Senate co-sponsors, is unlikely to pass through the House of Representatives this year, with only a few working days left in the congressional session. After the newly elected Congress meets in January, Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and Judiciary Committee chairman, would have to reintroduce it in the Senate.
The bill would allow the DOJ to seek court orders targeting websites that are "primarily designed" for or have "no demonstrable, commercially significant purpose" other than copyright infringement.
Critics, including the Center for Democracy and Technology, have said the bill would block free speech and could lead to a fragmentation of the Internet, as other countries attempt to enforce their censorship and other laws on foreign websites.
But several other groups, including the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild, praised the committee's action. The bill would target the "worst of the worst" copyright infringing websites, said Bob Pisano, president and interim CEO at the MPAA.
"These rogue sites exist for one purpose only: to make a profit using the Internet to distribute the stolen and counterfeited goods and ideas of others," Pisano said in a statement. "The economic impact of these activities -- millions of lost jobs and dollars -- is profound."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the US government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.