SOPA author to remove ISP blocking provision

Smith's decision to amend the bill comes a day after the Senate sponsor of similar legislation takes the same action

The lead sponsor of the U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act, a controversial copyright enforcement bill, will remove a much-debated provision that would require Internet service providers to block their subscribers from accessing foreign websites accused of infringing the copyrights of U.S. companies.

Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, said he will remove the ISP provision from the bill, called SOPA, so that lawmakers can "further examine the issues surrounding this provision."

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Smith's decision was prompted by discussions with industry groups "across the country," he said in a statement. "We will continue to look for ways to ensure that foreign websites cannot sell and distribute illegal content to U.S. consumers."

The ISP provision in SOPA allows the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders requiring service providers to block subscriber access to foreign sites accused by the DOJ of copyright infringement. That provision would be removed, but remaining in the bill would be provisions allowing the DOJ to seek court orders requiring search engines to remove links to sites accused of infringement and requiring online advertising networks and payment processors to stop doing business with the accused sites.

The bill would also allow domain-name registrars to block the foreign websites' IP addresses on U.S. servers, and it would allow copyright holders to seek court orders against ad networks and payment processors.

The ISP blocking provision in SOPA could lead to cybersecurity problems as Web users attempt to bypass the blocks, opponents have said. The bill could also lead to legitimate speech being blocked, opponents have said.

Smith's decision to remove the ISP provision in SOPA came a day after Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said he plans to amend the similar Protect IP Act, or PIPA, to take out a similar ISP provision, due to feedback from several groups. Lawmakers have heard strong opposition to the ISP provisions and other portions of SOPA and PIPA.

Meanwhile, a group of six Senate Republicans called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, to delay votes on PIPA scheduled to start Jan. 24. Since the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved PIPA in May, "we have increasingly heard from a large number of constituents and other stakeholders with vocal concerns about possible unintended consequences of the proposed legislation," wrote the Republicans, all members of the committee.

Among the Republicans signing the letter were Charles Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah.

The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee is due to resume a marathon session to amend SOPA after lawmakers return to Washington, D.C., later this month.

SOPA is still needed, Smith said. There is little "protection for American companies from foreign online criminals who steal and sell American goods to consumers around the world," he said. "Congress must address the widespread problem of online theft of America's technology and products from foreign thieves."

Opponents of SOPA said the proposed change to SOPA isn't enough. The changes show some progress, but bad provisions remain, said Sherwin Siy, deputy legal director of Public Knowledge, a digital rights group. PIPA still allows court orders against any business providing a directory, index, reference, pointer, or hypertext link to an alleged infringing site, he said.

"The bills are still over-broad in their reach," he added. "Both bills still include a private right of action with few protections from abuse, meaning that sites can be killed without ever being proven to violate copyright.

The Computer and Communications Industry Association called on the sponsors of SOPA and PIPA to step back and look for new ways to combat online piracy and counterfeiting.

SOPA is "still problematic to the Internet architecture because of other blocking/filtering provisions and overly broad definitions," said Heather Greenfield, a CCIA spokeswoman.

Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and cosponsor of SOPA, applauded Smith for deciding to remove the ISP provision from the bill. "Based on extensive conversations I have had with him and with tech leaders on this issue, it has become clear that more discussion with tech industry leaders and engineers about how best to approach this issue needs to take place," Goodlatte said in a statement.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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