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Facing online protest, U.S. lawmakers retreat on piracy bills

U.S. lawmakers appear to be abandoning their support for controversial copyright legislation after one of the biggest online protests in history.

Thousands of websites – ranging from social-networking sites to blogs to online pharmacies – went dark on Wednesday to protest against two pending pieces of legislation aimed at countering online piracy by drastically re-engineering the way the Web works within the United States.

As a result of the protest, some of the most popular sites in the world, including Wikipedia and Reddit, became difficult or impossible to access. Instead, the sites carried notices informing visitors of the organized protest against two bills – the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act – currently before the House and Senate, respectively.

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Initially coasting well below the public radar, the two bills have become the focal point of a battle between traditional content producers in the movie, music and TV industries – which have decades of experience in Washington lobbying – and the emerging technology behemoths looking to flex their muscles by leveraging their massive user bases.

Even though the biggest corporate opponents of SOPA and PIPA – Google, Facebook and Twitter, among others – didn't go dark on Wednesday, the digital blackout appears to have prompted several key legislators to drop their support for the bills, in the process altering the political landscape and making it far less likely either bill will pass smoothly.

Within hours of the blackout on Wednesday, Republican Senator Marco Rubio from Florida – one of the initial co-sponsors of PIPA – backed away from the bill.

"Earlier this year, [PIPA]passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously and without controversy. Since then, we've heard legitimate concerns about the impact the bill could have on access to the Internet and about a potentially unreasonable expansion of the federal government's power to impact the Internet," he said in a statement. "Congress should listen and avoid rushing through a bill that could have many unintended consequences."

Over the course of the day, several of Mr. Rubio's colleagues followed suit. Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn backed away from PIPA, announcing his change of heart in a Facebook post.

On the House side, at least two Congressmen also quietly backed away from SOPA this week. Ben Quayle, a Republican from Arizona, and Lee Terry, a Republican from Nebraska, have both asked to be removed as co-sponsors of the bill.

By Wednesday afternoon, support for the two bills appeared to be crumbling, as Missouri Senator Roy Blunt and Arkansas Senator John Boozman both abandoned PIPA. That, coupled with a statement from the White House earlier this month that indicated President Barack Obama would not support either SOPA or PIPA in their current form, suggests both bills will be heavily altered, if not written again from scratch, before resurfacing.

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"After listening to the concerns on both sides of the debate over the PROTECT IP Act, it is simply not ready for prime time," Utah Senator Orrin Hatch said in a Twitter post on Wednesday.

However many of the bills' key supporters have not changed their positions. Chris Dodd, the former U.S. Senator and current head of the Motion Picture Association of America, slammed the protest in a statement, calling it a "gimmick." Lamar Smith, the Texas Congressman who proposed SOPA, has previously vowed to push it forward, albeit while stripping some of the bill's most controversial features.

Opposition to the bills on Wednesday spanned a variety of websites, organizations and companies. Google posted a link to an anti-SOPA statement on its main page, while Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a note on the social-networking site stating: "Facebook opposes SOPA and PIPA, and we will continue to oppose any laws that will hurt the Internet."

But in addition to the tech industry's biggest names, opponents of the bills included groups such as the Consumer Electronics Association and Greenpeace. Civil liberties and human-rights groups have complained the bills, if passed, would outlaw some of the most important tools available to democracy advocates around the world, because those same tools could in theory be used to access blocked websites. Some computer security experts have also criticized the legislation because any blacklisting mechanisms used to keep American Web users from visiting certain sites could harm the technical underpinning of Internet security.

Even the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, which fears the proposed laws would clamp down on the practice among some Americans of buying cheap drugs online, joined the blackout.

Although the two bills would primarily affect American Web users, several experts have pointed out that the nature of the Internet – as well as the fact that much of its technical backbone resides in the United States – means any such laws would invariably have a cross-border splash effect. Canadian copyright law expert Michael Geist noted that the American Registry for Internet Numbers, the entity that allocated IP addresses for the United States, would be treated as a domestic entity under the proposed laws. However, ARIN is a regional organization, also handling IP addresses for Canada and 20 Caribbean countries.

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In Ottawa, the Conservative government has refrained from taking a hard stand on the proposed bills. In a response to questions from The Globe and Mail, a spokesman for Industry Minister Christian Paradis said: "Our government will be closely monitoring this U.S. bill with a view to protecting the interests of Canadians, from those who create content to the consumers who will benefit from it."

With a report from Gloria Galloway

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