The Senate Judiciary Committee recently passed the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act by a unanimous vote, moving the legislation to the full Senate.

The bill, which would give the Department of Justice greater power to shut down Web sites featuring allegedly infringing or pirated material, has received sharp criticism from digital rights groups. These groups argue that the Act gives the government too much power because it allows a court to issue an injunction against a domain registrar without giving them a chance to respond.

The bill (S. 3804) was sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and was introduced in September. “The Internet needs to be free – not lawless,” Sen. Leahy, the Senate Judiciary Chairman, said in a statement. The bill “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.”

The legislation would allow the Attorney General to petition to shut down a site “dedicated to infringing activities” for sites both in the United States and abroad. The bill defines sites “dedicated to infringing activities” as designed primarily to offer goods or services in violation of federal copyright law or selling counterfeit goods.

Under the legislation, the injunction would apply not just to an individual Web site but to a domain name, which critics have argued could result in overbroad governmental action because more than one individual site can operate under a single domain name.

According to a group of 40 law school professors who sent a letter to the Senate Committee, the bill would “fundamentally alter U.S. policy towards Internet speech, and would set a dangerous precedent with potentially serious consequences for free expression and global Internet freedom.” The law school professors argue that because the legislation would allow the court to order an injunction without hearing a counterargument that applies to an entire domain name – which could include noninfringing or noncounterfeit material – it grants the DOJ unconstitutionally broad powers that could infringe free speech.

A number of groups have thrown their support behind the bill, including the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Newspaper Association of America.

To read the text of S. 3804, click here.

Why it matters: Because of the lame-duck congressional session, the bill faces an uphill battle getting passed. In addition, despite the support of several major publishing-related groups, criticism of the legislation – from groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology – has been vocal.