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SOPA Blackout Aims To Block Internet Censorship Bill

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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?"

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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.

Both the House and Senate versions of the anti-piracy bill have enjoyed bipartisan support from Hollywood-friendly lawmakers, but momentum has foundered of late. In December, lawmakers from both political parties in both chambers of Congress issued a strong statement opposing the piracy bills, proposing an alternative bill that included more government review of copyright infringement claims and kicked claim adjudication toward the U.S. International Trade Commission, responsible for policing international trade violations.

On Saturday, the Obama administration announced its opposition to the bill. Nevertheless, Reid said on Sunday that he still plans a vote. Senate staffers told HuffPost on Tuesday they expect the bill to hit the Senate floor on Monday afternoon.

The Senate bill is hemorrhaging support -- the only question is whether it will lose so much that it will be unable to overcome a filibuster. On Friday, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), an official co-sponsor, declared, "I would not vote for final passage of PIPA, as currently written, on the Senate floor." He cited "serious concerns raised by my constituents" as grounds for his reversal.
The same day, six Republican senators, including two of Protect IP's original co-sponsors, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), sent a letter to Reid urging him not to proceed with a vote.

Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who hadn't taken formal formal positions, are now officially opposed to Protect IP. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) also voiced opposition to the bills on his Facebook page Tuesday.

"I’m going to vote NO on PIPA and SOPA," the post reads, although as a senator, Brown only has the power to vote on the Senate version, PIPA, not the House version, SOPA. "The Internet is too important to our economy."

Other opponents of the piracy bill are preparing to filibuster. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) plan to take the unusual -- and largely symbolic -- step of actually speaking on the Senate floor indefinitely to prevent the bill from coming up for a vote. Typically, when legislation cannot muster the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster, its opponents simply declare victory and leave the chamber for further negotiations. But passions are so high on Protect IP and SOPA that Wyden and Moran plan to drive home the depth of their opposition by spending hours denouncing the legislation, according to a Wyden staffer.

Under current law, companies that believe that their material has been improperly excerpted can request that the infringing material be removed, but cannot demand that entire websites be shuttered. Hollywood and other content providers aggressively police the web looking for such potential "takedowns," and frequently request that legitimate material be removed.

Reddit general manager Erik Martin worked for an independent film production firm prior to joining the tech world, and frequently received bogus requests to remove his company's material from YouTube.

"We would get a lot of erroneous . . . takedown notices, even on our own trailers for our own films put up on YouTube, because keywords would match," Martin said on a Tuesday conference call with reporters. "Especially when companies are using automated tools -- it's a script, and human beings aren't even looking at this -- the potential for abuse [under Protect IP and SOPA] is huge."

The government's new website annihilation process would involve federal tampering with the domestic Domain Name System -- a basic Internet building block that links numerical addresses where Internet data is stored to URL addresses that people actually type into web browsers. The Chinese government censors the Internet for its citizens by engaging in DNS blocking, restricting access to certain domains.

Tech experts warn that giving the U.S. government such power could hinder the functionality of many web applications, severing the connection between domain URLs and numerical data addresses that many programs rely on. It would also hamper efforts to introduce a new security system known as DNSSEC, which national security programmers have been developing for years.

"The Act would allow the government to break the Internet addressing system," wrote 108 law professors in a July letter to Congress. "The Internet's Domain Name System ("DNS") is a foundational building block upon which the Internet has been built and on which its continued functioning critically depends. The Act will have potentially catastrophic consequences for the stability and security of the DNS."

Hollywood and other SOPA backers counter that the bill is merely an effort to fight foreign piracy of American products, but the broad language in the Senate bill may subject domestic sites to trouble if they link to foreign sites, while the House version explicitly permits whole-site takedowns of sites operating within the U.S.

The bipartisan resistance to the bill is reflected not only in whip counts, but among high-powered Washington advocacy groups. The website for liberal grassroots organizer MoveOn is blacked out on Wednesday, while the Heritage Foundation, a hardline conservative think tank, said Tuesday that it opposes both SOPA and Protect IP, and will count both as "key votes," a critical metric that will be included in the group's annual "scoring" for lawmakers.

The Progressive Campaign Change Committee held a conference call on Tuesday in which co-founder Adam Green emphasized that his organization -- a major force in liberal political fundraising -- would "make sure people are held accountable for any votes to end the Internet as we know it, Republican and Democrat." Although the conference call was sponsored by longtime liberals, it included a surprise visit from House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a conservative Republican who has been a vocal SOPA opponent based on the bill's potential to harm the Internet and impede free speech.

Reid is pressing ahead with a vote without resolving conflicts with the White House over the content of the bill, most notably with regard to DNS blocking. The Obama team highlighted the DNS issue when it issued its position, stating, "Proposed laws must not tamper with the technical architecture of the Internet through manipulation of the Domain Name System (DNS), a foundation of Internet security."

But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) has offered no legislative language eliminating DNS. However the existing bill is amended, Reid intends to force a vote without any additional hearings. Leahy has stated that he will include a provision in the bill requiring that experts conduct a study to examine the potential effects of the legislation before it is actually implemented. Nevertheless, the bill would still require DNS filtering after the study is conducted. Tech lobbyists are now making the rounds on Capitol Hill arguing that if Leahy believes the bill's effects must be studied first, it makes more sense to hold off before passing anything ahead of such a study.

Reid, said a senior Democratic aide, is open to a manager's amendment -- a compromise bill that would replace the current language -- to resolve the differences between the two sides, though getting one in time is a daunting prospect. Reid, said the aide, is committed to moving forward with the vote whether it has 60 supporters or not.

"I don't think he likes having procedure dictated to him by outside interests. He scheduled the vote and he doesn't want to pull it down just based on pressure," said the aide. "He'd just as soon call the vote and have it fail."

In the House, the office of Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he will not allow SOPA to come to a vote before the full chamber in its current form. But exactly how it may be revised is unclear, and many web advocates expect the House version to simply copy the Senate's, provided the Senate bill can overcome a filibuster in the face of White House opposition.

One remaining wild card is how Senate Republicans will face the floor vote next week. Plenty of Republicans back the bill, but the party may use the opportunity to oppose it en masse, adopting Brown's reasoning that regulating the Internet could kill jobs. Or they could help it pass, putting Democrats in a political jam between Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

The GOP, one Democratic aide guessed, might "help us punch ourselves in the face."

Disclosure: HuffPost's parent company, AOL Inc., is lobbying against SOPA and PIPA.


CORRECTION:
An earlier version of this story misidentified Eric Cantor's leadership position. The story also referred to a Senator from Colorado as Tom Udall, when his name is, in fact, Mark Udall.

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