Music and movie biz back US bill to seize domains

Some of the biggest names in the US entertainment industry yesterday threw their weight behind a bill that could allow US prosecutors to seize the domain names of suspected pirates.

Usual culprits the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) led the charge, supported by companies including games outfit Activision and media conglomerates NBC Universal and Viacom.

In a letter to Democratic senator Patrick Leahy, who introduced the bill on 20th September with Republican Orrin Hatch, the ragged band said that the bill would combat the threat of "rogue web sites" that "undermine the growth and stability of many industries and the American jobs that they support."

The bill, known as 'COICA' - the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act - doesn't actually allow the government to shut down web sites accused of piracy. It does, however, give the US Justice Department powers to seize their domain names and prevent banks and credit cards with US operations from doing business with them.

The seizure of a domain name effectively prevents most visitors from accessing a site. Every site on the internet is identified by its unique numerical IP address - THINQ's, for instance, is 109.74.195.128 - but most users rely on Domain Names Servers on the internet to convert the more memorable domain name into these digits. Without a domain name assigned, the site still exists, but few users can find it.

The broad terms in which alleged pirate sites are defined - it applies to those sites that are "dedicated to infringing activities" - has led to a chorus of criticism for the bill by civil liberties groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The bill covers sites that are "primarily designed" or have "no demonstrable, commercially significant purpose or use other than" offering or, crucially, "providing access to" unauthorised copies of copyrighted works.

That last bit - "providing access to" - is particular important, because it encompasses sites such as The Pirate Bay, which has so far resisted attempts by bodies such as the RIAA to shut it down.

If the bill becomes law, it will see US domain registrar Verisign, which administers major suffixes including .com, .net, .tv and .cc, being forced to shut down access to sites singled out by the Justice Department. Top-level domains (TLDs) such as .co.uk, which are issued by other registrars, will be unaffected.

COICA's supporters in big business are keen for the bill to be passed before the next session of Congress begins in 2011. The upcoming mid-term elections are expected to pass control of both houses of Congress to the Republican party, who are known to be more sceptical about the legislation.