Senator Leahy Speaks Out: Putting A Stop To Online Criminals

Op-Ed By Senator Patrick Leahy For The Hill Newspaper

American consumers might be surprised to know that every day, criminals are trolling the Internet, selling and trafficking counterfeit goods to unsuspecting buyers. These products range from pharmaceuticals to electronics, clothing to handbags. If these criminals sold their counterfeit products on Main Street, the operation would be shut down and owners arrested. We must ensure our laws protect Americans from similar criminal activity on the Internet.

That is why I joined with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to introduce the bipartisan Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act. This carefully crafted legislation received unanimous support from the Senate Judiciary Committee. It is designed to protect American companies, American jobs and American consumers victimized by online piracy and counterfeit products.

Each year, piracy and the sale of counterfeit goods costs American creators and producers billions of dollars and results in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, according to some estimates. This impacts companies of all types and sizes, the people who work there and consumers who rely on the authenticity of the products they purchase. Protecting intellectual property is not uniquely a Democratic or Republican priority — it is a bipartisan priority, and this legislation is an example of how Republicans and Democrats are working together on an issue that is critical to our economic and job growth. 

Rogue websites are essentially digital stores selling illegal and sometimes dangerous products. If they existed in the physical world, the store would be shuttered immediately and the proprietors arrested. There is no excuse for this behavior simply because it happens online and the owners operate overseas. The Internet needs to be free — not lawless.  

What these rogue websites do is theft, pure and simple. Some have argued the conduct should be excused as free speech because it happens on the Internet. That argument contradicts the basic tenet of copyright law, which, as Justice O’Connor explained, is the very “engine of free expression.” Copyright law does not exist in opposition to our guarantee of free speech, it supports it.  

The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act will give the Department of Justice a new and more efficient process for cracking down on rogue websites, regardless of where overseas the criminals are hiding. It is consistent with, and complimentary to, the recent work of the Department of Justice and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which seized numerous domain names associated with rogue websites. We have worked hard to address the concerns of stakeholders on all sides of this issue — that collaborative approach resulted in a 19-0 vote to approve the legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill will ensure a court must find the rogue website is dedicated to infringing activity before any action is required, and it contains safeguards to ensure parties required to take action have the ability to do so effectively. The bill also provides an opportunity for a website owner to refute the allegations in court.  

The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act enjoys broad support from American industry and workers who often find themselves at odds. The Chamber of Commerce, organized labor, content owners and a tremendous cross-section of industry groups all support this legislation. Further, we have received extremely constructive input and assistance from the third party registrars, registries, Internet service providers, payment processors and ad networks, which will be required to take action to stop the infringing websites targeted by this legislation from doing business with United States consumers. Companies in each of those industries, which are critical to the ultimate success of this initiative, support this legislative framework. The Newspaper Association of America, the National Association of Attorneys General Intellectual Property Committee and the Coalition Against Counterfeiting and Piracy are among the bill’s many supporters.

Enactment of this legislation will not completely solve the problem of online infringement, but it is a significant first step that will make it more difficult for the most egregious infringers to profit off American hard work and ingenuity.   

Sen. Leahy is chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

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