Censoring Clicks or Saving the Web? SOPA Hearing May Shape Net's Future

An open letter to Washington signed by the creators of some of the web's biggest sites argues that a new bill could dramatically restrict law-abiding U.S. Internet and technology companies -- and reshape the web as we know it.

The House Judiciary Committee met Thursday to decide the next steps for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which has been the center of controversy among technologists and privacy advocates for months. If the bill passes, popular sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia and even Google would be held responsible for content users post to their sites. They argue that the U.S. government could reshape the Internet, thanks to vague language and imprecise wording.

"We are concerned that these measures pose a serious risk to our industry's continued track record of innovation and job-creation, as well as to our Nation's cybersecurity," the letter argues. It was co-signed by the creators of more than a dozen blue-chip websites including PayPal, Yahoo, Google and more and developers as AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo and Zynga.

"We cannot support these bills as written and ask that you consider more targeted ways to combat foreign 'rogue' websites dedicated to copyright infringement and trademark counterfeiting, while preserving the innovation and dynamism that has made the Internet such an important driver of economic growth and job creation."

Google co-founder Sergey Brin himself has loudly denounced the bill, Tweeting his continued opposition to SOPA Thursday morning.

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“While I support their goal of reducing copyright infringement (which I don't believe these acts would accomplish), I am shocked that our lawmakers would contemplate such measures that would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world,” Brin wrote on Google+ social networking site on Thursday.

Others argue the bill is an essential stopgap measure to at last end years of Internet theft.

"As of this morning, typing 'download movies for free' into Google will take you to sites like PirateBay that offer free copies of infringing films and TV shows,” said Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex) during the bill's opening debate on Thursday.

“The problem of rogue websites is real, immediate and increasing. It harms companies across the spectrum. And its scope is staggering,” Smith said.

According to the Chairman, nearly one quarter of global Internet traffic is infringing, resulting in loses of hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

Other sites argue for action, not words. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is threatening to shut down the English version of the popular site in protest of the bill.

Americans for Limited Government urged members of the House Judiciary Committee to reject HR 3261, warning the legislation would "take the mind of throwing the book at alleged offenders, shutting down their websites, cutting off their revenue streams, locking them up and asking questions later."

Bill Wilson, president of the group, wrote a letter to Chairman Smith that warned, "It is un-American to set up a situation where people are guilty until proven innocent."

Watch the hearing live at www.keepthewebopen.com.