Google’s policy counsel gave a compelling argument against the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act in Wednesday’s hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, but there were multiple other witnesses who testified in support of the bill’s passage, saying it is necessary to protect American intellectual property and American jobs.
Four of six total witnesses argued in favor of the bill, countering the criticisms of those who weren’t represented at the hearing, including many Web companies, consumer rights advocates, lawyers and other groups who say SOPA, as it is abbreviated, is ill-advised and would damage the Internet economy.
Maria Pallante, the U.S. Registrar of Copyrights, started things off with a bang, saying in her prepared statement: “It is my view that if Congress does not continue to provide serious responses to online piracy, the U.S. copyright system will ultimately fail.”
“The response provided by SOPA is serious and comprehensive. It requires all key members of the online ecosystem, including service providers, search engines, payment processors, and advertising networks, to play a role in protecting copyright interests - an approach I endorse,” Pallante continued, also praising the legislation for its “measured” approach.
Pallante also praised the bill’s restriction of legal action against websites accused of hosting or facilitating the acquisition of pirated content to the Attorney General’s office (rather than individual copyright owners), saying it was the “right calibration at this time.”
Under SOPA, the Attorney General can initiate action to order an Internet Service Provider to forfeit, takedown, or block any website’s domain name service (DNS) once that website has been accused of being a pirate haven by a copyright holder.
During the questioning period, Pallante argued vehemently against Google policy counsel Katherine Oyama’s contention that DNS blocking of foreign “rogue” or pirate websites, as outlined in the bill, would actually make the Web less safe for users overall, based on those who chose to circumvent the block using offshore ISPs.
“Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has already been using DNS takedown on U.S. websites without problems,” Pallante said.
This was argument was backed by another high-profile and articulate witness, Michael O’Leary, an executive with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), who pointed out that “sixteen other countries currently practice website blocking,” though he declined to say exactly which ones he was referring to. Previous studies by the OpenNet Initiative have found the most pervasive blocking in more socially conservative countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
“The truth of the matter is if we don’t step up and deal with these problems, we’ll be left behind,” O’Leary said. “The United States leads the world in the production of intellectual property, but we’re not leading the world in protecting it, and we should be.”
O’Leary’s full prepared testimony included an appeal to the most important topic on lawmakers and voters’ minds this season: jobs. As O’Leary said, the motion picture industry “includes more than 95,000 small businesses across the country that are involved in the production and distribution of movies and television, the vast majority of which employ fewer than 10 people.” O’Leary said that every day, Web users committed theft against these businesses and their employees with “the click of a mouse,” putting their jobs and livelihoods at risk.
On that same note, Paul Almeida, president of the Department of Professional Employees, a coalition of 22 unions of artists, craftspeople and manufacturers, referred to a May study from the U.S. International Trade Commission, which found that the U.S. in 2009 lost 923,000 jobs ant $48 billion to intellectual property infringement in China. That report, though, covers physical counterfeiting as well as digital content and online-facilitated purchasing of physical counterfeit goods. In addition, the report notes: “the majority of Web sites offering infringing goods and digital content are hosted in the United States and Europe.”
Still, Almeida added that “estimates of the number of jobs lost to digital theft in the arts, entertainment, and media sector alone run to the hundreds of thousands.”
Almedia also sought to the highlight the risk to general safety posed by counterfeited goods sold over the Web. He recalled an incident in May when the Atlanta, Georgia Fire Department was forced to recall some 18,500 smoke detectors it had distributed for free to homeowners in 2006, after finding out that they were counterfeited and didn’t sound their alarms properly. Although those smoke detectors weren’t purchased over the Web, Almedia used the example to say “We should not allow rogue websites to facilitate the distribution of counterfeit goods.”
He also lashed out at one major opponent of SOPA, Techdirt blogger Mike Masnick, who earlier in November ridiculed a firefighters union for supporting SOPA’s Senate counterpart, the PROTECT-IP bill. Almeida called Masnick’s post a “defamatory blast.”
Another strong proponent of SOPA who submitted testimony at Wednesday’s hearing was John Clark, the chief security officer of multibillion-dollar drug company Pfizer, who warned lawmakers on the dangers of counterfeit pharmaceuticals sold over the Web.
Citing a recent report from the World Health Organization, Clark noted that customers who buy drugs online from websites lacking physical address information have a 50 percent chance of buying a counterfeit drug.
Clark also endorsed SOPA’s harsher penalties for those found to be trafficking in pirated goods online, with maximum fines for individuals at $5,000,000 and the maximum prison sentence set at 20 years. As proof that such legislation was necessary, Clark pointed to the example of a major counterfeit pharmaceutical trafficker who was caught with the help of Pfizer and received “only” a six year prison sentence.
“This is a good example of the punishment not rising to the level of the seriousness of the crime and why we need stronger penalties,” Clark said.
Interestingly, one witness that was expected to be in favor of the legislation, Mastercard executive Linda Kirkpatrick, actually came out fairly strongly against the bill, saying there were at least six key areas affecting payment providers in the legislation that needed to be re-written before the company would be fully onboard.
Currently, SOPA mandates that payment providers, including Mastercard and the other large U.S. cried card companies, sever their ties with websites that have been accused of facilitating piracy, and that they do so within five days of being notified that the website has been accused.
But as Kirkpatrick noted, “there are many circumstances that may arise which make a five-day window to complete the required actions not workable.”
In addition, SOPA requires payment providers to submit a receipt that they’ve received the court order of a website takedown within 7 days of receiving the order. Kirkpatrick said that this time frame “would require additional employee resourcing, the retention of qualified local counsel, and the payment of any applicable court fees,” and potentially open any credit card companies that failed to meet the deadline open to being sued by rights-holders, i.e. accusers.
Still, there’s no denying that the majority of witnesses called to testify were in favor of the legislation, at least broadly speaking. We’ve reached out to the House Judiciary Committee for more information regarding today’s hearing, and we await their response.