US Eyes Blackout of ‘Rogue Websites’,  28 October, 2011

New anti-piracy legislation placed before the US House of Representatives would allow copyright law to be used to close down websites. Sites such as Wikileaks would be vulnerable, sparking fears that the bill could be used to stifle free speech.

The bill, submitted on Wednesday, is called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and will be reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee on November 16.

If approved, SOPA will enable individuals or organizations claiming copyright to effectively block any website they suspect of infringing their rights. They would simply send complaints to advertisers, payment services, search engines and even internet service providers operating in the US, who would stop doing business with the site in question.

No court decision would be necessary, and third parties would be granted immunity from any reprisals resulting from their voluntary action against the alleged offenders. Not-for-profit websites would not be spared.

The lawmakers behind the “rogue websites” bill say it would deal a blow to online pirates and producers of counterfeit brand products like designer fashion items or medicines, reports AFP.

“The bill prevents online thieves from selling counterfeit goods in the US, expands international protection for intellectual property, and protects American consumers from dangerous counterfeit products,” House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, said in a statement.

Howard Berman, a Democrat from California who co-sponsored the legislation, said it is “an important next step in the fight against digital theft and sends a strong message that the United States will not waiver in our battle to protect America’s creators and innovators.”

This stance is not shared by some human rights groups, however. The Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) says the House bill “raises serious red flags.

“It includes the most controversial parts of the Senate’s Protect IP Act, but radically expands its scope,” the CDT said in a statement. “Any website that features user-generated content or that enables cloud-based data storage could end up in its crosshairs.”

There are fears that the legislation could be exploited to gag political rivals. Recently, the controversial whistleblower website WikiLeaks had to stop publishing new leaks due to what they called an unlawful financial blockade by payment services and banks. The move leaves open the possibility of the US State Department copyrighting cables to give them protection under SOPA.

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