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Websites protest antipiracy bills as censorship

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / January 18, 2012
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Two bills aimed at fighting Internet piracy have bipartisan support and strong backing from the entertainment industry, but they have sparked strong protest from some technology companies and free-speech activists who say the measures will allow government censorship of the Internet.

Numerous websites, including the English-language version of Wikipedia, and the popular culture blog BoingBoing and the social news site Reddit planned to go dark at midnight last night in the largest protest yet against the Stop Online Piracy Act, which is under consideration by the House of Representatives, and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, a similar bill pending in the Senate.

“We simply cannot ignore the fact that SOPA and PIPA endanger free speech both in the United States and abroad, and set a frightening precedent of Internet censorship for the world,’’ said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales in an online statement, referring to the bills by their acronyms.

The bills are designed to stop websites based outside the United States from distributing illegal copies of music or movies to American citizens. In its original form, the legislation would have let the government force US Internet hosting companies and search engines to block access to foreign sites containing illegal materials. For instance, someone searching Google or Bing for a barred site would see nothing, even though the site exists.

The idea outraged Internet activists, who say it is similar to techniques used in China and other countries to censor outside news sites.

Former US senator Christopher Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut and now chief executive of the Hollywood trade group the Motion Picture Association of America, described the Internet protest as “an abuse of power.’’ Dodd, whose group strongly backs the legislation, called the online blackout “an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information.’’

Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, noted that the new law could have a major financial impact on search services like Google, which would probably have to comply with thousands of court orders forcing the company to delete websites with illegal content from its search index. “I think it’s safe to say that if these bills are passed, it’ll be extremely expensive for Google and other companies to comply,’’ McSherry said.

Google Inc. said yesterday its site will not shut down today, but it is placing a link on its home page protesting the legislation.

Danah Boyd, a researcher for Microsoft Corp. in Cambridge and a well-known technology blogger, said she would join the protest, taking her site offline today. “Not only does this fundamentally disrupt the very architecture of the Internet,’’ Boyd said, “but it also serves as a censorship move that undermines free speech.’’

The Senate is scheduled to resume debate on the legislation on Tuesday. In the House, bill sponsor Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said that his panel would take it up next month.

Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Malden, a member of a House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, said the legislation needs a closer look. “While we should guard against online piracy,’’ Markey said, “we also must not tarnish the telecommunications treasure that is today’s vibrant, open Internet.’’

Even sponsors of the legislation have recently expressed second thoughts about the bills. Last week, Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, indicated his willingness to modify the legislation, while Smith said he would drop the section requiring US Internet providers to block foreign websites.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the legislation came last Saturday, when the Obama administration said the website blocking provisions “pose a real risk to cybersecurity and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online.’’ Even without the address blocking language, the bills go too far, said Michael Petricone, vice president of government affairs at the Consumer Electronics Association. Petricone said federal courts would still be able to order Internet search services to remove links to any foreign websites containing pirated materials.

Not everybody will lose access to Wikipedia today. AllofWiki Offline, a $9.99 app for Apple Inc.’s iPhone and iPad, allows users to download the complete text of the online encyclopedia, so they can use it even when they or the service are offline.

Gareth du Plooy, 30, a resident of Winnipeg, Canada, who developed the app, said there’s been a spike in sales since Wikipedia announced its shutdown. But he planned to suspend sales of the app today in solidarity with Wikipedia. “I feel it’s my duty,’’ he said, “seeing as my app would not be possible without them and what they stand for.’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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