Google's Sergey Brin, left, says SOPA would put the U.S. "on par with most oppressive nations in the world."

Story highlights

Even as Congress vacations, opposition to online piracy act bubbles online

SOPA would crack down on rogue sites by letting government shut them down

Critics fear that the bill would crush online freedom

CNN  — 

Members of Congress may be on vacation, but that hasn’t calmed critics who say an effort to stamp out online piracy would create an unprecedented threat to free speech on the Internet.

Far from fading from memory, the Stop Online Piracy Act (along with a related Senate bill) has become a rallying point for Web freedom advocates in a debate that has pitted Hollywood and other business interests against some of the biggest titans of the technology world.

Interest in the debate spiked again this week when one of the bill’s opponents suggested that online heavyweights such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter had considered a “nuclear option” – temporarily shutting down their sites in protest – to raise awareness about the bills, which await lawmakers when they return this month.

When contacted by CNN, none of those companies would confirm that such a drastic move had ever been considered. By Friday, the advocate whose comments had fueled the speculation appeared to back away from claims that a Web blackout was still likely to occur.

“Internet and technology companies will continue to educate policymakers and other stakeholders on the problems with the (legislation),” Markham Erickson, director of Web trade association NetCoalition, said in a statement. “An ‘Internet blackout’ would obviously be both drastic and unprecedented.”

Part of the urgency comes from critics’ fears that the legislation, which has opponents and supporters on both sides of the political aisle, is going to move quickly once Congress reconvenes.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, has announced plans to push that chamber’s companion bill, the Protect IP Act, as soon as they return January 23. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, also a Democrat, and other senators have promised to filibuster, a move that would prevent leaders from calling for a vote until the following day.

“We hope that the Senate will cancel its scheduled vote on PIPA so that we can get back to working with members on how to address the concerns raised by the (Motion Picture Association of America) and others without threatening our nation’s security or future innovation and jobs,” Erickson said.

The future of SOPA itself is a little murkier. It was being considered in a House committee last month, when the wave of protests and proposed amendments from members led that committee’s chairman to postpone consideration until later.

Both bills are intended to help put a stop to foreign websites that illegally post, and sometimes sell, intellectual property from the United States. Federal law-enforcement agencies would be empowered to shut down those sites and cut off advertising and online payments to them.

At stake, say supporters, are American jobs. Every free piece of content scraped to be sold, or given away, online takes money out of the pockets of record companies, movie producers and other content creators and their millions of employees.

Pharmaceutical companies, sports leagues and video-game makers have also voiced support.

“Especially in this time of economic recovery, we cannot stand by and watch while American companies and the jobs they support are being bled by foreign criminals who are taking advantage of a massive loophole in our law enforcement capabilities,” wrote Steve Tepp, who works on counterfeiting and piracy issues for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “These illicit enterprises are not tolerated in the brick and mortar marketplace, so why would we allow them to flourish unchecked online?”

The pro-legislation Copyright Alliance cites a report from the International Chamber of Commerce saying that piracy and counterfeiting cost businesses $775 billion annually and puts 2.5 million jobs at risk worldwide.

Some of the amendments proposed in Congress would ensure that the bill applied only to foreign-based websites. But with multiple versions flying around the Capitol, and legislation prone to being tweaked right up until the last minute, critics fear that its impact could be chilling.

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has been outspoken against the efforts.

The bills “give the U.S. government and copyright holders extraordinary powers including the ability to hijack DNS (the Internet’s naming system) and censor search results (and this is even without so much as a proper court trial),” Brin wrote last month on his Google+ page as Congress was considering the measures. “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.”

The list of companies that signed off on a NetCoalition statement condemning SOPA reads like a who’s-who of the Internet. Yahoo, Zynga, Twitter, eBay, Foursquare, AOL, Mozilla, Etsy and LinkedIn are just some of the names.

In addition to putting existing sites at risk, critics say the piracy bills could hurt innovation by making investors less likely to sink money into start-up sites that could be shut down if the run afoul of the law.

Critics overwhelmingly agree that something needs to be done to combat online piracy. Many, including Google and Facebook, support a more-limited proposal by Wyden and Republican Rep. Daniel Issa, called the OPEN Act, which they say would combat digital piracy without giving license to shut down legitimate websites.

“Butchering the Internet is not a way forward for America,” Issa said when the plan was introduced last month. “The OPEN Act empowers owners of intellectual property by targeting overseas infringers while protecting the rights of lawful Internet entrepreneurs and users.”

As happens on the Internet, passions have run high as opponents have tried to mobilize.

Web registrar and hosting company GoDaddy reaped the Internet whirlwind for its support of the act. A massive effort to convince people to move their sites to other hosts was launched on Reddit and other sites. Eventually, GoDaddy announced that it had reconsidered its position.

In response to a post on tech blog CNET, in which the author calls the motion-picture association “evil” and says “Hollywood wants the Internet to die,” Recording Industry Association of America Chairman Cary Sherman called for a calmer debate while taking a shot at one of the tech industry’s biggest names.

“It is ironic sometimes that we are faulted for protecting our rights. Yet technology companies like Apple are among the most litigious defenders of their intellectual property patent rights,” Sherman wrote in a response column. “I suspect that regardless of what we do, some critics … will attack us.

“But surely there is a place for reasoned conversation, for rational discourse, for genuine efforts to understand each other.”