A new version of the Stop Online Piracy Act appears to be no more popular than the last one was.
In an effort to head off mounting criticism before a vote on the legislation this Thursday, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) today announced a series of tweaks (PDF) to SOPA, which is backed by Hollywood and major record labels but opposed by Internet firms and the Consumer Electronics Association.
But Smith, who heads the House Judiciary committee, stopped short of altering the core of SOPA--meaning that allegedly piratical Web sites could still be made to vanish from the Internet. Deep packet inspection could still be required. (See CNET's FAQ on SOPA.)
"There are still significant problems with the approach," said Public Knowledge attorney Sherwin Siy. The revised version of SOPA "continues to encourage DNS blocking and filtering, which should be concerning for internet security experts and human rights activists alike," he said. DNS stands for the Domain Name System.
Ryan Radia, associate director of technology studies at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, says SOPA v2.0 is "better than the old one, and more carefully written in several places." But, Radia says, "it's still a very bad bill."
The changes streamline and narrow other portions of the bill, especially those that allow copyright and trademark holders to file their own private lawsuits against suspected pirates. Now their target must, in some but not all cases, actually be "offering goods or services in violation" of U.S. intellectual property laws, a change from the previous wording that was more vague. The target also must be offshore.
SOPA v2.0 also takes more careful aim at Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, and other search providers. Previously the definition included a service that "searches, crawls, categorizes, or indexes information," which could have included thousands, or perhaps millions, of other Web sites with search boxes as well.
"Our staff and Chairman Smith have been working closely with stakeholders and other members over the past few weeks to strengthen the bill and address legitimate concerns from groups who are interested in working with Congress to combat foreign rogue websites," an aide to Smith wrote in an e-mail message circulated obtained by CNET. "The below changes reflect many of those conversations and result in a bill with even broader industry and bipartisan support."
The Recording Industry Association of America, a staunch SOPA supporter, applauded the changes in a press release from Chairman Cary Sherman:
This legislation is now more focused on the bad actors and provides additional safeguards for legitimate operators. These changes are reflective of the cooperative efforts led by the chairman's office and exercised by the creative communities and responsible intermediaries who all agree that overseas rogue sites cause serious damage to American innovation and jobs, and who recognize that the status quo is simply not working. For those who continue to blindly criticize or suggest ineffective alternatives, it's becoming ever more apparent that they simply want to defend the status quo because it helps their bottom line.
Other changes that have been made to SOPA v2.0:
An ad network or payment processor forced to cut off service previously was guaranteed the ability to "determine the means to communicate such action" to its customers. That language has disappeared.
A committee of federal agencies, which includes the Department of Homeland Security, "shall conduct a study" on how SOPA affects "the deployment, security, and reliability of the domain name system and associated Internet processes."
The definition of an "Internet site" that could be the subject of legal action for allegedly infringing activities has been altered. The previous wording said a "portion thereof" could be taken offline; now it explicitly refers to "a specifically identified portion of such site," which could mean a URL or subdomain, such as news.cnet.com.
What Smith's aides are calling a "savings clause." It's in response to criticism from technologists warning of SOPA's impact on DNS, and says that blocking orders should not "impair the security or integrity of the domain name system or of the system or network operated by" the company required to comply.
Banks and credit unions appear to be exempted from being targeted as a "payment network provider."
Meanwhile, concern over the concept of taking suspected pirate domains offline is growing. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has proposed an article page blackout as a way to put "maximum pressure on the U.S. government" in response to SOPA. This follows a similar protest in October by Wikipedia's Italian site.
Alex Macgillivray, Twitter's general counsel, posted an analysis on his personal Web site about how SOPA could affect average Internet users. If someone stores photos, documents, or blog posts on a Web site that's accused under SOPA of copyright infringement, those files "can be obliterated from his view without him having any remedy," Macgillivray writes.
During a speech in Washington, D.C. today, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt slammed SOPA, according to a report at TheHill.com. "They should not criminalize the intermediaries," Schmidt reportedly said. "They should go after the people that are violating the law."
The Motion Picture Association of America responded in a statement from Michael O'Leary, senior executive vice president for Global Policy and External Affairs, saying: "There is broad recognition that all companies in the Internet ecosystem have a serious responsibility to target criminal activity. This type of rhetoric only serves as a distraction and I hope it is not a delaying tactic."
SOPA represents the latest effort from the MPAA, the RIAA, and their allies to counter what their members view as rampant piracy on the Internet, especially offshore sites such as ThePirateBay.org. The measure would allow the Justice Department to seek a court order to be served on search engines, Internet providers, and other companies.
Two opponents of SOPA, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), have proposed an alternative called the OPEN Act, which targets only Internet ad networks and "financial transaction providers" such as credit card companies. It's not without its own critics: Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, has posted a lengthy critique.
Smith, the House Judiciary chairman, is planning a committee vote on SOPA this Thursday. The next step would be for the bill to go to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for a full vote, which would happen next year at the earliest.
Update Tuesday 11 a.m. PT: Michael Petricone, vice president for government affairs at the Consumer Electronics Association, sent us over some thoughts on SOPA v2.0 this morning: "The most important part, Section 103 (definitions) is so broadly worded it is still unclear where U.S. sites are covered...The blocking requirements also not clear as to the obligations, or what actual immunity from suit ISPs have. And of course the ISPs face suit by the DOJ if they erroneously make the wrong calls. This bill that actually a full legislative hearing to figure out what it means. A bill this important--and this ambiguous--should not be marked up on such short notice."