The first House of Representatives hearing devoted to a controversial online copyright bill began in an unusual way: with politicians defending themselves from charges that the proposal goes too far.
It's "beyond troubling to hear hyperbolic charges that this bill will open the floodgates to government censorship," Rep. Mel Watt, a North Carolina Democrat, said during a House Judiciary committee hearing this morning.
Claiming that the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, will transform the United States into "a repressive regime belittles the circumstances under which true victims of tyrannical governments actually live," said Watt, a SOPA sponsor.
SOPA, which was introduced last month in the House to the applause of lobbyists for Hollywood and other large content holders, is designed to make allegedly copyright-infringing Web sites, sometimes called "rogue" Web sites, virtually disappear from the Internet. (Here is a CNET preview of the Motion Picture Association of America's remarks on piracy and job loss.)
"The notion that this bill threatens freedom of information is insupportable," said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the committee's senior Democrat and another SOPA sponsor.
These complaints are a sign that a last-minute campaign by opponents of SOPA may be working. Google, Facebook, Zynga, Twitter, and other Internet companies who oppose the measure took out a full-page ad in the New York Times; Mozilla turned its home page black at midnight in protest; and a slew of other groups publicly came out against the bill yesterday.
SOPA's supporters are surely not delighted that today has been dubbed American Censorship Day, with Web sites including Wikimedia (as in, Wikipedia) charging that SOPA is an "Internet blacklist bill" that "would allow corporations, organizations, or the government to order an internet service provider to block an entire website simply due to an allegation that the site posted infringing content." Tumblr "censored" its users' content streams, and reported that its users are averaging 3.6 calls per second to Congress through the company's Web site.
With a bit of HTML from AmericanCensorship.org, a Web site supported by the Free Software Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Public Knowledge, hundreds of Web sites have "censored" themselves to protest SOPA. (Even Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat from Silicon Valley, has joined the fight-censorship protest.)
Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and chairman of the committee, charged that Google opposed his SOPA bill because it profited from piracy.
Google has "disregarded requests to block advertisements from rogue pharmacies, screen such sites from searches and provide warnings about buying drugs over the Internet," Smith said. "Given Google's record, their objection to authorizing a court to order a search engine to not steer consumers to foreign rogue sites is more easily understood."
SOPA is so controversial -- EFF calls it "disastrous" -- because it would force changes to the Domain Name System and effectively create a blacklist of Internet domains suspected of intellectual property violations. Civil liberties groups and the ACLU have criticized this approach; so have free-market and libertarian groups including TechFreedom and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
A Senate version of the bill called the Protect IP Act, which a committee approved in May, was broadly supported by film- and music-industry companies. Google chairman Eric Schmidt was sharply critical, as were prominent venture capitalists, civil liberties groups, and trade associations representing Web companies.
Rep. Lofgren from California said during this morning's hearing that it was a mistake for SOPA's backers to dismiss criticism from people and companies who would be affected by it.
"It hasn't generally been the policy of this committee to dismiss the views of the industries that we're going to regulate," Lofgren said. "I understand why cosponsors of this legislation aren't happy about widespread criticism of this bill," but attacking the messenger isn't the answer.
Lofgren also accused Smith, the panel's chairman, of deliberately stacking the composition of the panel in favor of SOPA. Of the six witnesses invited, "five are in favor and one is against," she said. "That's not a balanced panel."
The lone dissenter among the witnesses was Katherine Oyama, Google's copyright counsel, who joined Google after stints in the Washington offices of the Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale law firm and as Vice President Joe Biden's associate counsel.
SOPA's supporters were not gentle in their questioning of Oyama, prompting one wag to note on Twitter that: "I'm surprised that nobody asked Katherine Oyama if she was a communist." Rep. Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican, suggested that Google's executives "sent you to the lion's den" instead of daring to show up themselves.
Oyama said that Google and other Silicon Valley companies are critical of SOPA because "it would expose law-abiding U.S. Internet and technology companies to new uncertain liabilities, private rights of action, and technology mandates that could require monitoring of Web sites and social media."
A better approach, Oyama said, would be a law that attempted to cut off the flow of funds to piratical Web sites. "We would publicly support legislation like what I described, the follow the money approach," especially if it had "a good definition of rogue site that doesn't sweep in legitimate U.S. Web sites," she said.
Last updated at 11:45 a.m. PT