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January 13, 2012

Leahy Backs Down on Controversial Online Piracy Bill. Where Do Sanders and Welch Stand?

473px-Leahy2009 (1)While most of Vermont was focused on Gov. Peter Shumlin's budget address yesterday, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy was making national news on Vermont Public Radio's "Vermont Edition."

And it had nothing to do with a cameo in the upcoming Batman movie.

Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced on the show that he was preparing an amendment to the controversial PROTECT IP Act. Leahy said he would "set aside" the so-called domain name provisions in the bill, which would allow law enforcement to block access to foreign-based websites that illegally post pirated movies, music and other copyrighted content.

"This is a highly technical issue, and I am prepared to recommend we give it more study before implementing it," Leahy said in a statement issued after the VPR broadcast.

PIPA and its companion bill in the House, the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, have won praise from the entertainment industry and opposition from tech giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter, as well as from watchdog groups that say the legislation threatens free speech online. Among other things, PIPA gives the U.S. attorney general authority to order U.S.-based search engines and domain registrars to block access to offending websites.

For instance, a foreign website hosting a pirated version of The Dark Knight. Or more troublingly, WikiLeaks.

In his statement, Leahy says that PIPA's domain-blocking provision was drafted "in response to concerns that law enforcement has remedies it can take against domestic websites, but does not currently have the power to stop foreign rogue websites." As David Carr noted in the New York Times recently, the Motion Picture Association of America claims that piracy costs the United States $58 billion a year, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce claims piracy threatens 19 million American jobs.

Leahy acknowledges he's heard "concerns" from "engineers, human rights groups and others" about the domain name provision.

The senator's statement goes on: 

“As I prepare a managers’ amendment to be considered during the floor debate, I will therefore propose that the positive and negative effects of this provision be studied before implemented, so that we can focus on the other important provisions in this bill, which are essential to protecting American intellectual property online, and the American jobs that are tied to intellectual property. I regret that law enforcement will not have this remedy available to it when websites operating overseas are stealing American property, threatening the safety and security of American consumers. However, the bill remains a strong and balanced approach to protecting intellectual property through a no-fault, no-liability system that leverages the most relevant players in the Internet ecosystem.”

So where does the rest of Vermont's congressional delegation stand on this controversial legislation?

The investigative news organization ProPublica has put together databases on SOPA and PIPA, tracking where every congressman/senator stands on the issue and listing how much campaign money each received in 2010 from the industries that stand to win or lose the most if the bill becomes law: the music/movie/TV industries and the computers/internet industries.

Both U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch are listed as "unknown" on ProPublica's score card — and their press offices would not, or could not, reveal much more than that on Friday.

"We have some questions and reservations that we’re talking about with Sen. Leahy’s staff," said Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs. "It’s possible that there will be further tweaks before the bill comes before the Senate, and we’re waiting to see how the final package shapes up." Asked to specify Sanders' specific concerns, Briggs said, "That's as far as I can go right now."

Welch hasn't taken a position on the legislation, spokesman Scott Coriell said. Welch, who is out of the country on a trip through the Middle East, is due back on Saturday.

And as for campaign cash?

Leahy, who is famously friendly with Hollywood, had by far the biggest haul in 2010: He collected $346,056 from the music/movie/TV industries, and $140,620 from the computers/internet industries, according to ProPublica.

Sanders raised $11,500 from music/movie/TV and $5591 from computers/internet, ProPublica reports, while Welch raised $37,400 from the music/movie/TV industries and $13,750 from the computer/internet industries.

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