Internet websites go dark over anti-piracy legislation

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 18, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Wikipedia went dark this morning, Google masked its well-recognized logo with a black box, and a popular website of silly cat pictures, I Can Has Cheezburger, steered visitors to congressional lobbying efforts, all in protest of legislation that technology companies say is a threat to online freedom of speech.

The online, one-day protest didn’t appear to be shuttering commerce or work life by mid-day, but it had people talking on social media and in Congress. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., announced by Facebook this morning that he had changed his mind and would no longer support a Senate bill, the Protect IP Act. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who postponed a planned hearing today in the House oversight committee to hear technology companies’ opposition to the legislation, tweeted furiously, posting updates from other lawmakers and online blogs. The House of Representatives’ bill is the Stop Online Piracy Act.

The bills are meant to stop online piracy and protect intellectual property, and are supported by media companies including newspaper publishers, movie companies and book publishers.

Wikipedia, the user-generated encyclopedia, announced this week it would shut down for 24 hours starting at 12 a.m. Others chose to go dark for part of the day, including the social media news site Reddit and blog-hosting site WordPress.

Issa praised the effort in one of many tweets this morning, saying “I know blacking out sites wasn’t easy, but it’s responsible and transparent freedom of speech.”

Rubio had been a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, known as PIPA, because he thought it would protect Florida jobs, he said on his Facebook site this morning.

“Earlier this year, this bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously and without controversy,” Rubio wrote. “Since then, we've heard legitimate concerns. … Congress should listen and avoid rushing through a bill that could have many unintended consequences.”

Rubio said he would support new legislation to address concerns while still combating online piracy.

The anti-piracy bills have supporters and opponents in both parties. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee had called cybersecurity experts and Internet entrepreneurs to testify in a hearing today, but the panel's chairman, Issa, postponed the hearing after he felt satisfied that lawmakers had begun to listen to the legislation's opponents.

"The voice of the Internet community has been heard," Issa said in a statement Tuesday. "Much more education for members of Congress about the workings of the Internet is essential if anti-piracy legislation is to be workable and achieve broad appeal."

The battle pits traditional media companies — including movie and music studios, book publishers and television networks — against technology companies and Internet entrepreneurs. The former group supports the Stop Online Piracy Act because the bill attempts to address the growing problem of foreign websites posting copyrighted content without permission.

Technology companies, however, say the bill would restrict the free flow of information on the World Wide Web and stifle the kind of innovation that gave rise to sites such as YouTube and Facebook.

Faced with an online petition with more than 50,000 signatures calling for President Barack Obama to veto the legislation, the White House weighed in over the weekend. Three Obama administration officials who are involved in technology policy wrote in a memo Saturday that they oppose any effort to censor the Internet or compromise cybersecurity.

However, they stopped short of opposing the bills specifically. On Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said something had to be done about Internet piracy, and he emphasized that the White House wasn't taking sides between Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Carney said the "private sector actors" had "legitimate concerns on both sides, and those need to be addressed. That's what we need to maintain Internet freedom. That's why we need to do something serious about online piracy from foreign websites."

As originally written, the Stop Online Piracy Act would have allowed the Justice Department to order search engines such as Google and Yahoo to delete links to foreign sites with pirated content, making them inaccessible to U.S. Internet users.

However, cybersecurity experts warned that it would be possible for users to get around the restrictions and the provision would discourage U.S. Internet providers from adopting more secure technology.

Last Friday, the act's lead sponsor, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he'd remove the blocking provision from the bill.

"We will continue to look for ways to ensure that foreign websites cannot sell and distribute illegal content to U.S. consumers," Smith said in a statement. "Congress cannot stand by and do nothing while some of America's most profitable and productive industries are under attack."

In the Senate, six Republican co-sponsors of the Protect IP Act wrote Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Friday to ask him to postpone a vote on the bill scheduled for Jan. 24.

"We must have adequate time to properly analyze and resolve these concerns to the best extent possible prior to proceeding to the bill," they wrote.

(Lesley Clark and Barbara Barrett contributed to this article.)

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