Proponents, Detractors Debate SOPA in House Judiciary Committee Hearing

The forces massed to push the Stop Online Piracy Act, and those looking to block or modify it met in a House Judiciary Committee hearing.

Opponents of the bill have painted it as an Internet-killer, a characterization that did not sit well with a number of Republicans and Democrats on the committee, who said that such hyperbole did not help the debate.

The debate is over what new powers the government, copyright owners and Internet service providers should be given to combat rogue web sites, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Google was the target of much criticism for its opposition to the bill as currently constituted and the debate was characterized by some legislators as a fight among giants, with Hollywood on one side and big tech companies or, put another way, the war between North and South (California).

"When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers," said Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.).

Motion Picture Association of America executive VP Michael O'Leary suggested that was an oversimplification, and countered that IP protection affected jobs and content creators of all sizes and locales. In a tweet on the hearing, Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, which has major problems with the bill, said that when the elephants fight, it was the "grassroots" that got trampled.

Watt was particularly critical of the Google elephant in the room, engaging Google Policy Counsel Katherine Oyama in a lengthy query about what percentage of a site would have to be infringing before Google would support taking down sites. Oyama said Google already supported taking down sites, but through a legislative approach of following the money and choking off ad dollars and payment dollars rather than empowering ISPs to take down sites based on what she said were overly broad definitions in the bill.

She did say Google was willing to work with the committee to improve the bill, but seemed always to be saying any bill would have to take that "follow the money" approach. Oyama made the point that if a site was on the Web, it was going to show up in search. Google execs in past hearings have made the point that they were showing the Web as it was, rogue site warts and all as it were, not as some would wish it to be.

But the message from most legislators at the hearing appeared to be that to do nothing is not an option, and that to simply follow the money does not include major players in the process like ISPs and search engines.

Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tx.), who sponsored the SOPA legislation, said that the problem of online piracy is real, immediate and widespread. He cited the statistic that almost a quarter of global Internet traffic is in infringing content. He also took aim at Google for its criticism of the bill, and reminded the committee that the company had to settle with the government to the tune of a half billion dollars in a case involving accepting ads for Canadian pharmacies.

Ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.), also spoke up for the bill as well as against the hyperbole of critics who suggested it destroy the Internet. He held up an attack on the bill that resembled a horror movie ad and read "Attack of the Internet Killers." "We ought to know better," he said.

Watt said the harm from online piracy was not speculative. "Our goal must be to confront the criminal enterprises that are flourishing on the internet. He said. Doing nothing is not an option."

One interested observer, Rick Cotton, executive VP and general counsel of NBCUniversal, suggested the hearing should send a clear shot across the bow to pirates.

"The tone of today's hearing reflected broad recognition that foreign websites dedicated to massive, wholesale theft and counterfeiting are killing U.S. jobs," he told B&C/Multi. "It also reflected overwhelming support for legislating new tools to combat this theft among Republicans, Democrats, and an unprecedented coalition of business sectors and organized labor.  The majority of the Committee clearly recognized that it is time to tell the thieves who run rogue sites that we will not let them undermine the U.S. economy."

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.