Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., turned to the online community on Reddit last month for help with legislation she is drafting to try to slow down the government’s seizure of website domains accused of copyright infringement.
Many of the social news site’s notoriously outspoken users were grateful for the opportunity to weigh in again on the issue of domain name seizures. Earlier this year, Reddit helped rally opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act, legislation aimed at strengthening the Justice Department’s ability to shut down foreign websites that violate U.S. copyright laws. The resulting protests on sites including Wikipedia and Google made “SOPA” a household term.
“People are meant to be innocent until proven guilty,” Reddit user Tipaa said to Lofgren. “Taking a website down or seizing a domain name should be a last resort, opposed to a standardized knee-jerk reaction.”
Lofgren, a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee who represents a Silicon Valley district, is not the first politician to engage with Reddit. But she might be the lawmaker whose views hew closest to the site’s users. She frequently takes the side of Internet activists and Web companies against content creators and government agencies that enforce copyright laws.
Most of the people commenting on her Reddit post were united in opposition to “Operation In Our Sites,” the ongoing effort by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to identify and shut down domains that are accused of online piracy or copyright violations. Lofgren agrees with their stance, and she is one of only 41 members of Congress who voted against the PRO-IP Act of 2008 that authorized the seizures.
“There are some who argue, and I think there are reasonable arguments to be made, that the way Operation In Our Sites is being operated now violates the constitutional constraints,” the California Democrat told CQ Roll Call in an interview last week. “We ought to have clear standards so we know the Constitution is being adhered to.”
Under Operation In Our Sites, ICE has seized 1,630 domains, 684 of which have been forfeited to the government. The 2008 law authorizing the program was the result of a lobbying effort by content creators — including Hollywood and others in the entertainment industry and software companies — who wanted more- aggressive online copyright enforcement. They argue that piracy costs American companies billions of dollars in revenue a year and results in thousands of lost jobs.
“Because intellectual property is a valuable asset to both the inventor and American economy as a whole, Congress must ensure that IP enforcement is made a top priority for this and future administrations,” House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said at the time of the bill’s overwhelming passage.
But since widespread protests derailed SOPA in January, advocates of more-aggressive action against online piracy have become noticeably quiet, presumably concerned about another grass-roots backlash. The PRO-IP Act was sponsored by many of the same lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee who backed SOPA, including Smith and incoming chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va. Smith’s office had no comment for this article, while Goodlatte’s office did not respond to queries.
Before SOPA, content creators rarely experienced much opposition to their calls for expanded online enforcement. Content creators have struck a more conciliatory tone recently, with Christopher J. Dodd, the former Connecticut senator who now serves as president of the Motion Picture Association of America, calling for greater cooperation between Hollywood and Silicon Valley at a conference this month.
“Hollywood and Silicon Valley have more in common than most people realize, or are willing to acknowledge. Not only does Hollywood work closely with Silicon Valley to create and promote films, Hollywood film and television creators are tech companies,” Dodd said. “It’s time to reject the binary framing of the issues. The future isn’t about choosing between protecting free speech or intellectual property — it’s about protecting both.”
Lofgren concedes that charting a new direction on copyright policy is an uphill battle. But she is wading in nonetheless, with a draft legislative proposal that seeks to add some judicial oversight to the process currently used to seize domains. She wants to require the government to provide notice and an opportunity for website operators to defend themselves before seizing or redirecting their domain names.
“The thinking is, obviously it’s not going to pass anytime soon,” she said. “But it’s a marker out there. And if we can get some Republican co-sponsors and if we have something that is clearly rooted in the Constitution, maybe we can make some progress.”
The consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, which helped rally opposition to SOPA, has opposed expanding online copyright enforcement. Sherwin Siy, the group’s vice president for legal affairs, said seizing a domain is “not like you’re sticking a padlock on a warehouse. A domain is more than just a place where goods are stored. It’s a hub for speech.
“Physical goods can be held in escrow or in a warehouse and they won’t necessarily decay or degrade,” Siy added. “If you seize a site, you’re shutting it down. You’re stopping a process, as opposed to sequestering something physical that can be restored.”
Lofgren points to the hip-hop blog Dajaz1 and the Spanish sports site Rojadirecta, which were both seized by ICE only to be restored after much legal wrangling, as evidence that the current process doesn’t provide site owners adequate recourse.
“It’s absurd. This is America, you don’t do stuff like that,” Lofgren said regarding the seizure of Dajaz1, which stayed offline for almost a year. “The fact that the case was ultimately dropped itself says something about the merits of the case. But that you could do the whole thing in secret without any judicial review should make people very uncomfortable.”