Senate Committee Passes Bill To Quash Pirate Websites

The U.S. Senate's Judicial Committee unanimously passed the controversial 'Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act' today, a bill that could be used to crack down on many BitTorrent sites and other file-sharing platforms. The bill would give the Department of Justice the unprecedented power to take over domain names of websites that are deemed to facilitate copyright infringement.

As was demonstrated earlier this year, taking the domains of suspected sites has proven to be a highly effective tool to shut down sites that are considered illegal. In September, a group of U.S. senators proposed legislation to make this a standard procedure, and today the Senate’s Judicial Committee unanimously supported the bill.

Before it becomes law the bill will have to be approved by the Senate and Congress, which has to happen quickly because a new Congress will be seated in January.

If signed into law, the ‘Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act’ (COICA) would allow the Department of Justice to file a civil lawsuit against the domain owners. If the courts then decide that a site is indeed promoting copyright infringement, the DOJ can order the domain registrar to take the domain offline. The bill is not limited to domestics offenders, but also allows the DOJ to target foreign domain owners.

The targets of the bill could possibly include many BitTorrent sites. Last week both the MPAA and RIAA submitted their wishlists of “rogue websites” that should be taken care of, and these included The Pirate Bay, isoHunt, Demonoid and other popular torrent sites.

Although none of the operators of these sites will be happy with the new legislation, Demonoid has been opposing COICA in public, asking its members to take action.

“If passed, this law will allow the government, under the command of the media companies, to censor the internet as they see fit, like China and Iran do, with the difference that the sites they decide to censor will be completely removed from the internet and not just in the US,” a message on the Demonoid homepage reads.

Aside from classic ‘pirate’ websites, the bill also conveniently provides an effective backdoor to take the whistleblower site Wikileaks offline, or its domain at least. After all, Wikileaks has posted thousands of files that are owned by the United States.

If the bill is accepted it will change the Internet and how domain names are controlled for good. Thus far, no central government has the power to take over domains. This power belongs exclusively to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Over the last weeks, several digital rights groups including the EFF have voiced their concerns over the new legislation, calling it an “unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech and a threat to innovation” and claiming it “would break the Internet.”

The protests and opposition are expected to continue during the next weeks, but meanwhile the RIAA and MPAA are applauding the Government’s actions.

Update: Demand Progress just sent out an email that gives hope to those who want COICA to be stopped or changed.

Senator Ron Wyden denounced the bill as “a bunker-buster cluster bomb” aimed at the Internet and pledged to “do everything I can to take the necessary steps to stop it from passing the U.S. Senate.” In addition Hollywood’s Dianne Feinstein told the committee that even she was uncomfortable with the Internet censorship portion of the bill and hoped it could be removed when they take it up again next year.

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