In the past ten years, Congress has tried on multiple occasions to pass legislation to combat online copyright infringement. While the bills received bipartisan support and support from powerful groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), both attempts failed. The first was the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) in 2010, and the second was the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2011. Another bill, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), a rewrite of COICA and similar to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), also never passed.
This article will discuss why these bills failed, what it means for the future, and why it matters to the domain industry and the Internet as a whole.
COICA was a controversial bill introduced by Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to combat online copyright infringement. The bill would work by authorizing the Attorney General (AG) to essentially pull the plug on any domain, domestic or foreign, deemed to be “dedicated to infringing activities.” This was a catch-all that included domains in violation of copyright law or that sell or promote counterfeit goods or services. Essentially, under this law, if a website were to be found in violation of copyright law, the AG could require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to hide that website’s domain name from being accessed.
From the onset, several groups opposed the bill. Opponents stated that the bill was in violation of the First Amendment and could harm legitimate websites. They argued that the criteria were too vague and that it was dangerous to allow the government to decide which websites were legitimate and which were “dedicated to infringing activities.”
Although the bill had bipartisan support, it died when the 111th session of Congress ended. They basically ran out of time.
If this bill were to have passed, search engines such as The Pirate Bay would have been in danger of losing their domain. Additionally, registries owning the rights to domain extensions would have also found themselves in some murky legal waters.
SOPA, introduced in 2011 by Lamar Smith (R-TX), was Congress’ next attempt at combating online infringement. This bill went a step further than COICA. It would have:
- Barred advertising agencies from conducting business with infringing websites
- Barred search engines from linking to the websites
- Required ISPs to block access to the websites
- Expanded criminal laws to include unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison
As with COICA, SOPA proponents said it would protect intellectual property and ease the enforcement of copyright laws. It received widespread bipartisan support, along with support from many organizations, including the Better Business Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce.
Opponents of SOPA argued similarly to arguments made in opposition to COICA. They argued that it would be an infringement on free speech and would serve to censor the Internet. For the opponents, they felt it went too far and would put too many websites at risk of the government closing its doors. Opposition grew as an online movement in 2012 when Wikipedia and around 7,000 other websites blacked out their service in protest against the bill. Other protests included an act by the hacker group Anonymous when they blocked access to number pro-SOPA companies including CBS.com.
In response to these events, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) postponed the vote. Later, the bill died when the 112th session of Congress ended.
So what does all this mean for the future of free speech on the Internet? One takeaway is that neither of these bills passed, so the status quo remains. On the other hand, each of these attempts had bipartisan support as well as support from powerful companies and organizations such as Major League Baseball, the National Football League, Nike, Nintendo, Viacom, the Recording Industry Association of America, and many more.
These attempts to enforce copyright law on the Internet are not going to stop, and they could put legitimate domain owners at risk of losing their lives. We should look to these bills and the arguments made on either side to inform future debates around this issue.
We at Saw.com believe it is important that any person that is looking to purchase a domain name or launch any sort of an internet business stays informed. To learn more about what you can do to protect your rights we highly suggest, and support the Internet Commerce Association.