SOPA Could Help Feds Shutdown Online Pharmacies

Congressional leaders have stalled work on a bill (SOPA and PIPA) to combat Internet piracy amid charges of censorship. But there are provisions in the bill that could give law enforcement the tools necessary to crack down on illegal online pharmacies.

Teens and adults looking to buy unprescribed painkillers often order them from foreign websites where the Food and Drug Administration has no power to regulate.

"Kids today are very creative and have access to a wide array of illicit drugs." said Dr. Kevin Hill who is an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "Not only do they know how to get drugs locally, they're very technologically savvy and that can create a problem with more dangerous medications flooding into communities."

Prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing and deadliest drug problem in America.  Deaths from opiate related overdoses topped that of heroin and cocaine, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Five percent of users are getting their drugs from an online source or drug dealer, the Office of National Drug Control Policy reports.

Section 105 of the Stop Online Piracy Act would help companies take independent action against sites that "endanger[s] public health."  U.S. based payment companies like MasterCard or American Express would be given a legal incentive to shut down payments to illegal online pharmacies.

Private companies that revoke service to the online pharmacies leave themselves vulnerable to a breach of contract lawsuit even if the plaintiff is an illegal business.  Section 105 would grant immunity to service providers that cut off service independently as long as they believe that the customer is engaging in illegal activity.

Under current law it is difficult to shut down a site hosting illegal activity unless it can be proven that the site's owner is aware of that activity.  Sites that ignore the law can often evade prosecution if their operations are based overseas.

Authorities have had some success in prosecuting drug rings domestically but those investigations take years while SOPA would allow private businesses servicing the illegal company to take action quickly, without the aid of law enforcement.

Hillel Parness is a litigation and intellectual property partner at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P. who filed piracy cases on behalf of companies.  He believes that the public is uninformed when it comes to anti-piracy legislation and Congress should move to pass the least-controversial parts of SOPA first.

"There's a lot more in SOPA that's getting zero coverage which raises the interesting question if in fact some of the more controversial parts get delayed - is it possible that we see some of the other provisions show up somewhere else?" said Parness.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has delayed the vote indefinitely on the Senate version of the bill (The Protect IP Act) and it is unclear when Congress will take up the matter but lawmakers from both sides insist that the delay is only temporary.

"There's no reason that legitimate issues raised about PROTECT IP can't be resolved," Reid tweeted last week. "I'm optimistic that we can reach compromise on PROTECT IP in coming weeks."

Internet companies like Wikipedia staged an online blackout last week to protest both SOPA and PIPA.  The entertainment industry says the bill will help curb intellectual property theft.  Protesters are concerned provisions in the bill that would put an unfair burden on website operators to fend off lawsuits by private parties.

Google recently reached a $500 million settlement with the Justice Department over displaying illegal web ads for Canadian pharmacies.