published Thursday, January 19th, 2012

Internet piracy bill draws online criticism


by Chris Carroll
Mallory Whitt works at her desk at the offices of the Wikipedia Foundation in San Francisco on Wednesday. Wikipedia on Wednesday started a 24-hour blackout of its English-language articles, joining other sites in a protest of pending U.S. legislation aimed at shutting down sites that share pirated movies and other content.
Mallory Whitt works at her desk at the offices of the Wikipedia Foundation in San Francisco on Wednesday. Wikipedia on Wednesday started a 24-hour blackout of its English-language articles, joining other sites in a protest of pending U.S. legislation aimed at shutting down sites that share pirated movies and other content.
Photo by Associated Press.

TENNESSEE SOPA CO-SPONSORS

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D

TENNESSEE PIPA CO-SPONSORS

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R

College kids, chronic Wikipedia users and other unlikely congressional observers set the Internet ablaze Wednesday, protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act in a show of solidarity.

"Don't Censor Our Internet" and "Leave Our Internet Alone" were among common refrains against the House bill known as SOPA. The legislation would require search engines to block foreign websites suspected of pirating copyrighted music, movies and television shows -- "those janky Chinese TV-streaming websites you watch 'Mad Men' on," as Gawker.com put it.

Under the bill, copyright holders could seek court orders to compel sites such as Google and Twitter to remove links to "rogue" sites. Authorities also could require advertising companies to cut off payments to suspected pirates.

Critics say the legislation sounds like censorship, fails to define "suspected" and undermines due process.

"SOPA sucks. chattanooga/cleveland area folks, contact your house rep!" Paul M. Howard, a senior advertising design major at Lee University, said via Twitter.

But U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Republican, hasn't decided where he stands on the bill, owing to a politically treacherous mix of well-financed media companies -- including one that contributed to Fleischmann's campaign -- and a groundswell of constituents advocating for free speech.

"I understand the need to protect intellectual property rights from being stolen," Fleischmann said in a written statement. "However, I also understand the concerns with the bill as it stands and the need to ensure freedom of speech."

Clear Channel Media and Entertainment donated $1,000 to Fleischmann in 2010. The media conglomerate's parent company, CC Media Holdings, lobbied Congress on SOPA, but it's unclear what position it took. A spokeswoman could not be reached late Wednesday.

In protest of SOPA, Wikipedia and dozens of websites that rely on user-compiled information blacked out their content Wednesday. House Republicans postponed SOPA action to February after the White House opposed the proposal.

The demonstrations shown by websites such as Wikipedia "are a great show of democracy," Fleischmann said.

* * *

Traditional media companies, including the Motion Picture Association of America, are the main forces backing the legislation.

"Do we want to have laws? Or do we want to just say it's a free-for-all Wild West?" MPAA spokesman Howard Gantman told the Washington Post. "There's no fundamental First Amendment right to engage in thievery."

Gantman has two friends in Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both Tennessee Republicans. Alexander and Corker co-sponsored SOPA's Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act, known as PIPA.

Records show the Motion Picture Association of America has given Alexander $1,000, and the Recording Industry Association of America has given $2,000 each to Alexander and Corker since 2007. Clear Channel has donated $3,000 to Corker since 2005.

The motion picture and recording industries publicly support SOPA and PIPA.

Despite the Internet-wide backlash, Alexander defended the legislation.

"I am a co-sponsor ... because it will protect the rights of musicians, artists and others from illegal foreign websites dedicated to copyright infringement," Alexander said in a written statement. "I look forward to improving the bill to address legitimate concerns raised about it."

Alexander did not elaborate on those concerns. Websites for Alexander and Corker were slow Wednesday afternoon as constituents tried to contact them.

Todd Womack, chief of staff for Corker, said, "While Senator Corker is a cosponsor of the Protect IP Act, he has always understood that there remained issues to be resolved before Protect IP was ready to become law. Though the bill being considered will likely not come to a vote in its current form, he hopes ongoing negotiations result in legislation that also stops foreign websites dedicated to stealing and profiting off the intellectual property of Americans, protects free speech, and fosters commerce and innovation on the Internet."

"How convenient!" Bluff City, Tenn., native Gregg Kiser wrote on Twitter. "Senators Bob Corker & Lamar Alexander's e-mail form pages are both unavailable. Can't leave them a message about SOPA! Grrrr."

Other local representatives, including Republicans U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, and Rep. Tom Graves, of North Georgia, opposed the bill.

"Congress should not stifle the legitimate and legal use of the Internet and the freedom and innovation it fosters," DesJarlais said in a statement.

"I can tell you now that Tom is opposed to SOPA in its current form," said Jennifer Hazelton, a Graves spokeswoman. "If the bill is amended or changed, we will review the changes and Tom will make his decision accordingly."

Like Fleischmann, Graves received $1,000 from Clear Channel in 2010. DesJarlais did not.

U.S. Reps. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., have co-sponsored the House legislation, citing concerns about piracy from state's country music and songwriting industry, according to The Tennessean newspaper.

Since 2005, Cooper has received $4,500 from the Recording Industry Association of America, disclosures show.

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