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Battle Over "Internet Censorship" Bills Heats Up

December 9, 2011

NEW YORK - Is it simply a way to crack down on the pirating of music and movies, or a measure that could lead to online censorship and the end of Internet freedom? The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and a similar measure in the Senate are raising red flags.

The bill, expected to come to a House vote before the end of the year, is seen by Josh Levy of the media reform group Free Press as an overreaction to copyright infringement that places unnecessary burdens on such websites as Etsy and You Tube to determine if they're hosting unauthorized content.

"It would give people who run Internet websites very little time to respond to accusations before their websites are actually 'disappeared' from the Internet."

Aligned with movie studios and music companies in support of SOPA are the pharmaceutical industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Google, Yahoo and Twitter are among companies in opposition to the measure, which they say threatens Internet innovation and job creation.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) says he'll lead a filibuster if he has to, to try to forestall passage. He has introduced alternative legislation that would leave enforcement to the International Trade Commission and, he says, narrow the potential harm from shutting down websites without due process.

"I'm not going to support anything that does so much damage to innovation and the ability of the 'Net to be there, available to everyone, and not just the moneyed interests who have so much clout already in American government."

Levy says at the core of the dispute over SOPA and its Senate version - the Protect Internet Privacy Act (PIPA) - is a clash between First Amendment rights and property rights, with wealthy interests backing the latter.

"Hollywood, the recording industry, legacy businesses and organizations that are focused on protecting content creators and the interests of the wealthy."

In Levy's view, SOPA and PIPA represent very real threats to an unfettered, open Internet that is vital to commerce and democracy.

"Copyright infringement is a problem. And I think everybody - most people - agree that that's true. But that doesn't mean that we need to burn down the store in order to catch the thief."

If PIPA and SOPA get enough votes for passage, Sen. Wyden says he will stall by reading the names of everyone signing a petition that's being circulated against the measures. The Chamber of Commerce estimates that U.S. companies lose $135 billion a year to counterfeiting and piracy.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - NY