House committee votes on SOPA: Preventing piracy or killing the Internet?

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The House Judiciary Committee votes Thursday on legislation aimed at stopping websites that feature pirated movies, TV shows, books and music.

Supporters say it’s the right way to stop rampant piracy on the Web and protect artistic content. Critics say it will kill the Internet as we know it.

It’s Tinseltown versus Silicon Valley. Two anti-piracy bills in the House and Senate are responsible for the battle royal.

One is called “Protect IP.” The other is the “Stop Online Piracy Act,” or SOPA. The bills give the government more power to ferret out and stop “rogue” Internet sites from trafficking in unauthorized goods, like pirated movies.

The Motion Picture Association of America and the Director’s Guild support the legislation. They’ve been at war with Internet pirates for years.

Mike Nugent directs Creative America, an advocacy group started by seven movie studios. He says the industry is after "the criminals who operate really bad websites on the Internet that have stolen content and that use modern technology to distribute this content to viewers, often on the first day of theatrical release, within the minutes after the TV show is aired." Nugent says the anti-piracy legislation will help keep Hollywood robust and fruitful by protecting intellectual property.

But civil liberties groups and tech companies like Google and Facebook say Protect IP and SOPA will have the opposite effect online. Parker Higgins, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says "sites like Etsy or Flickr or Vimeo, which hosts videos, those could be seen as possibly dedicated to infringement. If five, six years ago, SOPA were law, we wouldn’t have YouTube today."

Both sides are harnessing the lobbying power of the Web to make their case as the anti-piracy legislation moves through Congress. And the House Judiciary Committee is hearing from all sides.

The challenge is how to shut down foreign websites that sell counterfeit goods and bootleg movies. Under SOPA, the Justice Department presents its case to a federal judge for permission to block Internet sites that infringe on copyrights.

Michael Macleod-Ball, with the American Civil Liberties Union, says the impact isn't just on sites with infringing content. "We agree that there ought to be mechanisms available to take down infringing content," he says. "But we think in doing so, there will be a lot of non-infringing content that will be impacted by it, taken down from the Internet."

This week, an open letter attacking SOPA appeared in the “New York Times” and “Washington Post,” signed by the co-founders of Google, Yahoo, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and other online leaders. They say SOPA allows the U.S. government to censor the Web the way China and Iran do.

The online industry has put that message on the Web, enlisting members of the House Judiciary Committee in a series of Internet spots, including Republican Darrell Issa of Temecula. Issa is offering his own anti-piracy legislation.

Issa’s OPEN Act wouldn’t shut down Internet sites that offer pirated content. Instead, it would require payment sites, but not search engines, to delete links to rogue sites. The enforcer would be the International Trade Commission.

Former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd doesn’t like that. He heads up the Motion Picture Association of America and he asks why bring in a new agency to deal with an old problem?

"The federal courts have been dealing with copyrights for 200 years, and done so pretty well," he says. "If it’s not broke, why change it? It's much more burdensome to come and do that."

Dodd has been speaking out for the Stop Online Piracy Act in Hollywood and Washington. The Motion Picture Association has also been pushing that message on Twitter.

The debate over anti-piracy legislation comes up in the House Judiciary Committee at 7 a.m. Thursday. You can watch it online.

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