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Copyright Bill Causes Stir On Foreign Website Blocking

Some lawmakers move to drop provisions in the controversial Protect IP Act, now being considered by Senate, that would require U.S. service providers to forcibly redirect customers away from foreign sites accused of piracy.
One of the more controversial parts of the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) bill currently being considered by the Senate may get dropped.

The provision in question would require service providers, after receiving a court order, to prevent people from accessing specified foreign websites, by blocking those sites' domain name system (DNS) entries. The Department of Justice would seek such blocks if it determined that a foreign website was violating U.S. copyrights. But many U.S. service providers, amongst others, haven't been happy with the proposal.

"This is, in fact, a highly technical issue, and I am prepared to recommend we give it more study before implementing it," said the bill's author, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Thursday, on Vermont Public Radio.

Later in the day, he released a statement with further details. "The Protect IP Act provides new tools for law enforcement to combat rogue websites that operate outside our borders but target American consumers with stolen American property and counterfeits," he said. "One of those tools enables law enforcement to secure a court order asking Internet service providers to use the [DNS] to prevent consumer access to foreign rogue websites." But he acknowledged that no service provider would likely support DNS blocking.

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Accordingly, he'll propose that "the positive and negative effects of this provision be studied before implemented." But he added that "I regret that law enforcement will not have this remedy available to it when websites operating overseas are stealing American property, threatening the safety and security of American consumers."

Leahy's hyperbole aside, could PIPA--or the House's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which still proposes to block domains with a court order--actually do what he suggests? Critics of the bill have said that's unlikely. For starters, that's because the court-ordered takedowns in the proposed law would only apply to U.S. businesses. Hence if Google began forcibly altering DNS settings and redirecting users away from websites that the U.S. government had designated as being involved with inappropriately selling pirated software or prescription medicine, users could simply use foreign search engines. Meanwhile, while authorities might then tell service providers to block those foreign search engines, in reality there would be no way to create and affordably implement a rolling blacklist of all such sites.

Furthermore, Google has come out against PIPA. Eric Schmidt, Google's chairman, last year said the company would resist any attempts to force it to censor sites that its users could access, and name-dropped China as another country that might favor such an approach. "I would be very, very careful if I were a government about arbitrarily [implementing] simple solutions to complex problems," he told the Guardian.

Regardless of the proposed modifications to the bill or the underlying technological issues, PIPA also faces a significant legislative hurdle. True, more than 40 senators have said they'll support the bill, which Leahy co-authored with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Leahy has scheduled debates on PIPA to begin January 24. But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has placed a hold on the bill, which at least temporarily prevents the bill from being voted on by the full Senate.

Furthermore, Wyden said Leahy's proposed PIPA refinements haven't changed his mind about what he calls the "censorship regime" that PIPA will create. "It is welcome news that proponents of PIPA are finally accepting that it contains major flaws," he said in a statement released Thursday. "Unfortunately, this announcement to study the DNS provision does not eliminate the clearly identified threat to Net security contained within this bill."

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