Two bills now pending in Congress—the PROTECT IP Act of 2011 (Protect IP) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House—represent the latest legislative attempts to address a serious global problem: large-scale online copyright and trademark infringement.
Although the bills differ in certain respects, they share an underlying approach and an enforcement philosophy that pose grave constitutional problems and that could have potentially disastrous consequences for the stability and security of the Internet’s addressing system, for the principle of interconnectivity that has helped drive the Internet’s extraordinary growth, and for free expression.
To begin with, the bills represent an unprecedented, legally sanctioned assault on the Internet’s critical technical infrastructure. Based upon nothing more than an application by a federal prosecutor alleging that a foreign website is “dedicated to infringing activities,” Protect IP authorizes courts to order all U.S. Internet service providers, domain name registries, domain name registrars, and operators of domain name servers-a category that includes hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses, colleges, universities, nonprofit organizations, and the like-to take steps to prevent the offending site’s domain name from translating to the correct Internet protocol address. These orders can be issued even when the domains in question are located outside of the United States and registered in top-level domains (e.g., .fr, .de, or .jp) whose operators are themselves located outside the United States; indeed, some of the bills’ remedial provisions are directed solely at such domains.