Thousands of websites, including some of the most popular, are going dark today to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill which is designed to thwart copyright infringement but that Web experts warn could threaten the functionality of the Internet.
Encyclopedia giant Wikipedia, popular news-sharing site reddit, browser pioneer Mozilla, photo-sharing favorite Twitpic and even ICanHazCheezburger.com are blocking access to content throughout Wednesday, symbolizing what the bill may allow content creators to do to sites they accuse of copyright infringement. Other websites, including Google, are expressing solidarity with the protests by featuring anti-SOPA content on home pages.
The online protests are being joined by a physical demonstration in New York City, where thousands of representatives from the city's tech industry plan to demonstrate outside the offices of Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), co-sponsors of the Senate version of SOPA, beginning at 12:30 p.m. As pressure has mounted, both have expressed willingness to compromise.
SOPA would give both the government and major corporations the power to shut down entire websites accused of copyright infringement with neither a trial nor a traditional court hearing. The legislation is aggressively backed by Hollywood movie studios and major record labels, along with several major news providers, including Fox News and NBC-Universal, which have largely shied away from coverage of the bill.
The burst of opposition to SOPA and its Senate companion, Protect IP (or PIPA, for short), has caught many lawmakers, who thought they were endorsing a fairly non-controversial anti-piracy bill with strong corporate support, off guard. Senate co-sponsors of the bill regrouped on Tuesday, huddling in the Capitol with major industry backers of the bill.
In December, HuffPost reported that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a Protect IP co-sponsor with deep ties to both Hollywood and the technology industry, thought disputes between two of her most prominent corporate constituencies had been worked out. After that story ran, Feinstein attempted to broker a compromise, calling both tech companies and film studios.
Walt Disney Co. President and CEO Bob Iger declined the invitation on behalf of content providers. "Hollywood did not feel that a meeting with Silicon Valley would be productive at this time," said a spokesperson. The meeting took place with only tech companies present. Feinstein, once a reliable vote for the existing version of Protect IP, is now working hard to amend the bill, according to Senate Democratic aides.
But finding common ground is more difficult in this case than in most intra-corporate squabbles, because the two sides -- or powerful elements within them, at least -- have largely irreconcilable world views. One senior Senate aide said that the technology side consistently refuses to specify precise changes they want to the bill. Indeed, improving the bill would be counterproductive if the ultimate goal is killing it outright -- which it certainly is for many elements of the anti-SOPA coalition.
"That's a high-stakes risk," said the senior aide, "because if they don't have 41 votes, then what?"
By pitting nearly the entire tech industry against corporate Capitol Hill insiders from Hollywood, SOPA has prompted a tremendous wave of lobbying in Washington, accompanied by a flood of campaign contributions ahead of the 2012 elections. More than 1,000 lobbyists are currently registered to juice lawmakers on the bill.
The proposed legislation has startled tech experts and free speech advocates, who warn that the anti-piracy tactics envisioned by the bill would bring about widespread censorship of legitimate content and hamper important cybersecurity measures.
"The solutions are draconian. There’s a bill that would require [Internet service providers] to remove URLs from the Web, which is also known as censorship last time I checked," said Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt during a November speech.
The online blackout protests are rankling the Motion Picture Association of America, a lobbying group for the five biggest American film studios, which has lost significant support for its favorite bill in Washington over the past few months. MPAA Chairman Chris Dodd, a former Democratic senator from Connecticut and close friend of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), ripped the blackout in a Tuesday blog post, which tech advocates view as evidence that Hollywood is threatened by the effort.
"Some technology business interests are resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns," wrote Dodd , who represents News Corp., Time-Warner, Sony and Disney. "It is an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information and use their services. It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today."
"This is a signal that Hollywood is really rattled by these protests and worried about where this bill is heading," said Josh Levy, Internet campaign director for FreePress.org, a nonprofit media watchdog group.
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