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Websites Go Dark Despite Delayed SOPA Vote

The House has postponed its planned vote on the Stop Online Piracy Act, but many leaders in the technology industry feel the fight against what they call online censorship is far from over.

To prove that point, websites including Wikipedia, Reddit and WordPress will “black out” today, showing users what the sites could look like if SOPA and its Senate companion — Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act — become law.

If enacted, SOPA and PIPA would allow the Department of Justice as well as individual copyright owners to bring legal action against Internet users who post copyright-infringing content. The Department of Justice could, without input from the alleged copyright-infringing user, require that search engines and
domain hosting companies remove the content that is considered improper.

Those who oppose these bills view them as overreaching attempts that could impede Internet users who do not violate copyright laws. For instance, if a comment on a website contained copyrighted material, the entire website could be shut down without first notifying the users or the owners of the website, opponents allege.

For Sarah Schaaf, communications director of image-hosting website Imgur, the postponing of the SOPA vote doesn’t mean much. “We know that the government wants to pass Internet censorship legislation this year, so tabling SOPA really is not a win for our side by any means,” she said in an email. “It will be brought back up, whether under the same name or not, so it’s important not to give up just because the vote has
been postponed.”

Tiffiniy Cheng, director of anti-SOPA/PIPA organization Fight for the Future, said that now is the time to remain strong in opposition to this legislation, especially because the vote on PIPA is scheduled for Jan. 24. “This is our big moment where we need to come out in total opposition to these bills,” she said. “Our goal is to kill PIPA and SOPA.”

In addition to today’s online protests, there are several real-life protests scheduled for today and later this week, Cheng said. The protests, which were in large part organized online, are scheduled to take place in New York City, San Francisco and Seattle today, and in Newark, N.J., on Friday, according to Cheng. “It’s ordinary Internet users who are actually organizing for the first time and who are organizing in the real world,” she said.

For many of the participants in today’s blackouts and this week’s physical protests, the underlying goal is to inspire Internet users to reach out their representatives in Congress.

Reddit General Manager Erik Martin said he hopes the protests will encourage Members of Congress to seek out industry experts when discussing potential legislation with such widespread implications.

“If it’s legislation that involves something as important and fragile as the Internet, lawmakers have to get people who understand it involved,” Martin said.

Art Brodsky, communications director for digital rights group Public Knowledge, referred to a November House hearing on SOPA as a “classic stacked hearing,” at which members of the technology community were conspicuously absent. Google was the only technology company opposing SOPA at the hearing. “These bills are basically put together by the movie industry,” he said. “Now they’re showing what happens when you don’t have an inclusive process.”

According to Brodsky, a common misconception about the SOPA/PIPA debate is that it is a fight between big technology companies and big media companies, a misconception he hopes this week’s protests will correct. “When people say this is just Google versus Hollywood … that’s totally wrong,” he said.

In a statement Tuesday, PIPA’s sponsor,  Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), said PIPA would not have the effects that protesters are anticipating. “Much of what has been claimed about the Senate’s PROTECT IP Act is flatly wrong and seems intended more to stoke fear and concern than to shed light or foster workable solutions,” he said. “The PROTECT IP Act will not affect Wikipedia, will not affect Reddit, and will not affect any website that has any legitimate use.”

Leahy suggested that “if these companies would participate constructively, they could point to what in the actual legislation they contend threatens their websites, and then we could dispel their misunderstandings.”

After the White House came out in opposition to SOPA over the weekend, Motion Picture Association of America spokesman Michael O’Leary said the group remains committed to the two bills. “As had been made clear throughout the legislative consideration of SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act, neither of these bills implicate free expression but focus solely on illegal conduct, which is not free speech,” O’Leary said in a Jan. 14 statement.