Senators explore new website seizure options

Leahy promises new legislation aimed at websites selling pirated or counterfeit goods

By , IDG News Service |  Security

U.S senators will introduce legislation this year targeting websites that traffic in digital piracy or counterfeited goods, said the primary sponsor of a controversial bill proposed in 2010 that would give government agencies more authority to shut down those sites.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, promised Wednesday to introduce a bill targeting so-called rogue websites, although he did not say how closely the new legislation would mirror the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA).

COICA, which the Senate failed to act on, would have given the U.S. Department of Justice new authority to force domain name registrars to shut down websites that allegedly infringe copyright.

Leahy and other senators noted complaints about COICA during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, although several argued that the U.S. government needs to take major new steps to protect U.S. businesses against copyright infringement.

"I contend that America is on the losing end of the largest transfer of wealth through theft and piracy in the history of mankind," said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat. "We're doing virtually nothing about it."

Since late November, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has obtained court orders to shut down more than 100 websites for alleged copyright infringement, even without the new authority in COICA. On Monday, ICE announced it had seized the domain names of 18 websites offering counterfeit jewelry, handbags, perfume and other products.

Critics of COICA have said it would trample free speech rights on websites that offer forums, reviews and other information in addition to selling digital or physical goods. Several Internet engineers have suggested that COICA could fragment the Internet's domain name system, with other countries emboldened to block websites for a variety of reasons.

But senators heard little criticism of COICA during their hearing. Representatives of groups that have voiced the most opposition to the bill did not appear as witnesses.

Representatives of Visa and domain-name registrar GoDaddy.com said they would prefer a process in which companies work together to fight online copyright infringement, but neither representative said they opposed the bill. GoDaddy recommends "targeted, narrowly tailored" legislation, but the company supports the goals of COICA, said Christine Jones, the company's executive vice president and general counsel.

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