< Legislation Aims to Fight Digital Piracy


Friday, September 24, 2010

BOB GARFIELD: On Monday, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee proposed legislation to combat digital piracy. The new law would give the Justice Department new tools to shut down websites dedicated to illegal content sharing. The measure enjoys rare bipartisan support, and one of the bill’s sponsors, Vermont’s Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, claimed that it will protect American investment in jobs. Greg Sandoval is a senior writer for CNET. Hey, Greg, welcome back.

GREG SANDOVAL: Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: First, tell me about this new law, called the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act. That’s COI [LAUGHS]. How would it work?

GREG SANDOVAL: It sounds like the Attorney General is going to have lots and lots of leeway to go to a judge and say, hey, these guys are trafficking in unauthorized films, TV shows, music, and we want them shut down. But they haven't given us a criterion of how they're going to decide a website is a pirate site. And a judge either has to be really informed, really skeptical to challenge these guys.

BOB GARFIELD: The sites in the sights of the Senate Judiciary Committee quintessentially are like PirateBay, which seems to exist only to facilitate illegal downloading of protected intellectual property.

GREG SANDOVAL: PirateBay really is the poster child for this kind of law. It was founded by three Scandinavians, and the U.S. trade representative has tried for years to get them shut down. The site is operated in multiple countries. They've made no bones about wanting to help people get a hold of free movies, music, books. I would say that this law should really be called the PirateBay Law, or the Anti-PirateBay Law.

BOB GARFIELD: And because they're offshore, the U.S. government has been limited. What in the proposed law would give the Justice Department the tools to shut down something like PirateBay?

GREG SANDOVAL: They're going to go to a judge and say, we need an order for Internet service providers, like AT&T, Comcast, and tell them they're going to have to block access to this. They'll go to VISA or MasterCard and say, you guys can't do any transactions for any of these sites. And they can go to Google and say, you cannot pay them any more advertising revenue if they've got Google AdSense on their site. If it passes, they're going to be able to essentially black out these sites and stop them from generating income from the United States.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, the Motion Picture Association of America and the recording industry have long been advocating for strict antipiracy just like this, but they've been stymied in the past. What’s changed?

GREG SANDOVAL: I would say what’s changed is that the President and Vice-President Biden have received a lot of backing from the entertainment sector. And last summer, Vice-President Biden said, piracy is smash-and-grab theft. There’s going to be plenty of people who are going to say in these hard economic times we shouldn't be in the business of protecting films and music. These companies already have a ability to file civil suits, to go to the ISPs and try to do this through the courts. President Obama, Vice-President Biden continue to say though that the U.S. government has to have an active hand in protecting jobs. And here’s the side of the content owners. They say they're getting killed by piracy. They say they're losing jobs. They can't survive without some help from the government. The stats that Hollywood has provided and the music industry have been discredited by the government itself, a GAO report. However, the GAO said there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that shows Hollywood and the music industry are suffering as a result of piracy.

BOB GARFIELD: The other big question is constitutionality. The bill seems to tread kind of heavily on [LAUGHS] freedom of speech, saying if your website is dedicated to aiding and abetting pirates, we shut you down. Will we next have the Justice Department shutting down Jihadist websites and marijuana legalization sites? You get the point. It’s the slippery slope question.

GREG SANDOVAL: And that’s going to be one of the many challenges this bill is going to face. I'm sure Senator Leahy understands that. I don't see this bill getting through without at least a very tough fight.

BOB GARFIELD: Even if PirateBay.org and other well-known pirating sites are shuttered, won't the digital pirates just find some other less visible sites or some other means entirely, to facilitate illegal file sharing?

GREG SANDOVAL: This bill, even if it passes, will not be checkmate. Last year I went to Hollywood and I talked to a lot of studio people, and they were depressed because there’s this new system of sharing files. You’re not even downloading anything. You’re getting streaming video from underground sites. And one member of the film industry told me that with some of these streaming sites, they don't even know what country they're in, where their servers are. One of the most famous guys allegedly is a German who is very brash, and he’s out there offering free streaming. You don't have to download any software. You get a link to his site, all the Mad Men episodes, all the movies. And it’s easy to do, and it’s going to hit mainstream America. And that’s what Hollywood is worried about right now.

BOB GARFIELD: Greg, thanks so much.

GREG SANDOVAL: Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Greg Sandoval is a senior writer for CNET.