The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act would have enabled the federal authorities to ask for court orders directing Internet service providers and domain registrars to stop visitors from reaching domains "dedicated to infringing activity."
Entertainment groups like the Recording Industry Association of America and Motion Picture Association of America supported the proposed measure, while digital rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation opposed it. Among other arguments, the EFF said that copyright holders can already go into court and obtain injunctions against certain infringing sites.
It wasn't just the civil libertarians who expressed concern about the proposal. More than 80 Internet engineers also asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to quash the bill.
"If enacted, this legislation will risk fragmenting the Internet's global domain name system (DNS), create an environment of tremendous fear and uncertainty for technological innovation, and seriously harm the credibility of the United States in its role as a steward of key Internet infrastructure," they wrote in an open letter earlier this week. "In exchange for this, the bill will introduce censorship that will simultaneously be circumvented by deliberate infringers while hampering innocent parties' ability to communicate."
Also opposing the bill was Tim Berners-Lee, credited with creating the World Wide Web. "We all use the web now for all kinds of parts our lives, some trivial, some critical to our life as part of a social world," he also said. "In the spirit going back to Magna Carta, we require a principle that: No person or organization shall be deprived of their ability to connect to others at will without due process of law, with the presumption of innocence until found guilty."
Online piracy poses a very real problem for certain industries, or at least certain business models. There's no serious question that some record labels have seen revenue plummet since the emergence of Napster.
But the RIAA, MPAA and others already can sue companies that infringe copyright and, if successful, obtain injunctions against individual sites. Enabling the federal government to order an ISP to block traffic is censorship at its most fundamental level; it should require more justification than protecting the commercial interests of entertainment companies.