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A World Without Wikipedia: For SOPA, Websites Threaten a Midnight Blackout

January 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Beginning midnight Wednesday, some major Internet companies could go dark for 24 hours as part of an online protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. Ray Suarez discusses the planned blackout with Ben Huh, the CEO of a participating company, and NBC Universal's Rick Cotton, who supports the legislation as written.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, The battle over online piracy is heating up, as companies are taking their case directly to Web users.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: If you normally turn to Wikipedia to look things up, you will have to go elsewhere tomorrow. The English version of Wikipedia, along with other popular sites, such as Reddit and BoingBoing, will go black for 24 hours to protest anti-piracy legislation.

The companies oppose two federal bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act, known as SOPA, and the Protect I.P. Act, known as PIPA. The legislation could force websites to monitor material from users that may include copyrighted content. It could also give the government the right to block entire websites.

Major content providers, including the film and recording industry, say they need greater protection from copyright theft. The Obama administration said over the weekend it wouldn’t support the current versions of the bills.

Two principal figures from that debate join me now.

There's a fundamental difference between people who want to see the Internet and say let's lobotomize and censor parts of it because we need to control it, and those like us who see the Internet as a method of growing the economy and innovating in front of the world.Ben Huh, Cheezburger, Inc.

Ben Huh is the CEO of Cheezburger, a network of 50 websites. It plans to go dark tomorrow. And Rick Cotton is an executive president at NBC Universal, which favors the legislation. He’s also the chair of the Chamber of Commerce Coalition Against Piracy.

Ben Huh, let me start with you. What is it in this law that warrants the operation — the opposition from both you and your partners on that side of the debate?

BEN HUH, Cheezburger: Well, I think that what the bill is trying to do doesn’t match what it will do. The bill is trying to stop foreign pirate sites. Unfortunately, we’re opposed to the fact that we think it will curb First Amendment rights on the Internet for the U.S., as well as for foreign sites, as well as prohibit the growth of American jobs on the Internet sector.

RAY SUAREZ: When you say curb First Amendment rights, is there a First Amendment right to traffic in intellectual property that you didn’t create?

BEN HUH: There isn’t a one that steals — quote, unquote — “copyrighted material,” but there is certainly a very clear case to be made for fair use, which I think that the MPAA and the RIAA has abused their powers on.

And we think that bills like this will only make that worse, where people cannot use material in a fair use kind of way because they’re too afraid of being — following the copyright infringement.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Cotton, why does your group support the bills as they’re currently written?

RICK COTTON, NBC Universal: Well, you have to start with the big picture here, which is what is at stake here is the jobs of millions of Americans who are employed in two dozen high-growth, high-innovation sectors of the U.S. economy.

Their businesses are under assault from foreign websites who are over — which are overwhelmingly dedicated to nothing other than trafficking in stolen content and counterfeit physical goods. Remember what these bills are about. Number one, they are about websites outside this country. Second, they are not about fair use. They’re not about a few postings.

They are about sites that are overwhelmingly dedicated to trafficking in illegal content. And, finally, no required action needs to be taken unless there has been a court order with full due process and full procedural protections. Our jobs are. . .

BEN HUH: Rick, I don’t think that’s true.

RAY SUAREZ: Stand by, Mr. Huh. Let Mr. Cotton finish his point.

RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead.

RICK COTTON: So, I think there’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about what these bills provide, but there really is no lack of clarity in the way the bills are written, foreign websites overwhelmingly dedicated to illegal activities, and, third, a requirement of a court order.

RAY SUAREZ: OK. Mr. Huh, go ahead.

BEN HUH: So, I think what Rick is reading from is this bill. And he’s talking about the first few pages of the bill.

However, the rest of the bill is actually very clear in targeting U.S. advertising and financial providers, as well as giving immunity to those who take preemptive action in censoring those users’ content.

So, this bill does actually target U.S. companies. And the way the bill is written when it comes to referring to foreign websites, American companies who operate a foreign domain name, such as us, fall under that bill, where foreign companies who pirate content who use U.S. domain names do not.

This is a very bad bill because it doesn’t understand the way the Internet works. And the data that Rick is quoting in terms of U.S. jobs includes companies like us. We do not support this bill. We should not be part of the millions of people whose jobs are at stake. In fact, this bill is what is going to jeopardize our jobs.

RAY SUAREZ: Rick Cotton, what about that? Mr. Huh says that the intention of the bill is very different from the actual bill, that he’ll get caught up in policing kinds of functions that don’t involve what he’s doing.

He’s not trafficking in movies. He’s not trafficking in the kind of material that you talk about. And he’s not a foreign website.

RICK COTTON: These bills do not focus — do not target and wouldn’t apply to Mr. Huh’s website.

And what I would ask him right here on the air, which is, if he believes that there is confusion or any portion of the bill that somehow implicates a non-foreign website, is not targeted on foreign websites, would he support the bill if whatever ambiguities or uncertainties he thought existed were clarified?

These bills are focused on foreign websites.

RAY SUAREZ: Ben Huh, what’s your answer?

BEN HUH: These bills are unfortunately not directed at the right people. The way they’re written is incorrect.

And I think that the Internet community has spoken very loudly and clearly, and the White House statement reflects this, that we are in support of bills that curb piracy and counterfeiting if it doesn’t infringe on our First Amendment rights, does not lower our standing with the international community by preventing people from using uncensorship tools, as well as protecting American jobs.

And the Internet is one of the few growth points of the economy, where we’re creating jobs left and right. And bills like this — there’s a study that was provided that says 75 percent of investors, 75 percent of investors would spend less and invest less in the United States if a bill like this was passed. How is this good for the American economy?

RAY SUAREZ: Over the weekend, the White House weighed in on this controversy, and I think probably made neither side very happy.

The administration said: “Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses, large and small.” They say they don’t want the bill passed as written. Both sides in the House and Senate have said they’re ready to come back with a new version.

Mr. Cotton, are you going to lose SOPA as written that you support?

RICK COTTON: Well, I think both the sponsors of the Senate bill and the House bill have announced that they intend to make revisions which are responsive to the primary concerns that the White House expressed.

They have agreed to take out of the bills Internet service providers which would involve court orders blocking access to Internet sites. So there has been a very significant compromise. The sponsors have responded to the concerns. And I think the bills, as they remain, which target cutting off funding and preventing search engines from bringing back results of sites that — foreign sites that have been adjudicated, adjudicated to be dedicated to illegal activities is a very targeted and very focused piece of legislation that really, when you look at it carefully, pose none of the issues which Mr. Huh refers to.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Ben Huh, quickly, before we go, can changes be made that get you at a legal regime that you can live with, that you and other people like you can live with?

BEN HUH: Unfortunately, the bills currently cannot have any — the provisions in the bill need to go away. And we need to start over. We need to start over with a transparent process.

And instead of using lobbyists to try to do this over the holidays, we need the transparent process to start over and include the community. There’s a fundamental difference between people who want to see the Internet and say let’s lobotomize and censor parts of it because we need to control it, and those like us who see the Internet as a method of growing the economy and innovating in front of the world.

And we have to actually reconcile those two positions. And we believe that it is much better to protect this crown jewel of civilization, which is the ability for us to communicate and express our ideas freely, than try to lobotomize it.

RICK COTTON: The only thing that I would say in conclusion is that protecting the Internet requires that it be an environment that is under the rule of law.

RAY SUAREZ: Ben Huh from Cheezburger, Rick Cotton from NBC Universal, gentlemen, thank you both.

RICK COTTON: Thank you.

BEN HUH: You’re welcome.