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The Google homepage, shown in this screenshot taken Wednesday, Jan. 18, was one of the many Web sites protesting proposed federal legislation targeting Internet copyright theft.
Thursday, January 19, 2012

Legislation turning sites pitch black

When Google and Wikipedia went “dark” Wednesday, it put the spotlight on proposed federal legislation targeting Internet copyright theft. The protest spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter.

“This is the 21st century equivalent of walking out your front door and seeing a picketer,” said Tom Haines, an English professor at the University of New Hampshire, who teaches digital media.

The online campaign may have worked, as some federal lawmakers who sponsored the bills stepped back Wednesday.

The version in the U.S. House – SOPA, or Stop Online Privacy Act – has been shelved, and the offices of both of New Hampshire’s congressmen expressed strong reservations about it.

“We have been getting a lot of correspondence, communication about it today,” said Jody Powell, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta, who represents the most of the eastern portion of the state as well as some central towns, including Merrimack. “It is running heavily, heavily against it.”

SOPA and the U.S. Senate version PIPA, or Protect Intellectual Property Act, seek to protect intellectual property and copyright largely by targeting Web sites that sponsor potentially illegal content.

The most controversial part of the laws would give authority to enforcement agencies, as well as holders of copyrighted material, to shut down Web sites, bar advertising network and payments sites, even ban search engines from linking to the sites or Internet service providers from providing access.

While Wikipedia’s shutdown may have caught most people’s attention, Alvaro Molina joined in on the protest for a different reason.

Molina, a Nashua resident, signed an online petition against the proposed law after seeing a protest at the online gaming Web site, League of Legends. Games on the site are free, but users can pay to unlock other content. Molina has spent more than $100 on this content, and is worried he may lose his money if League of Legends is affected by tighter anti-piracy legislation.

Although copyright laws are understandable, at the same time, they can be too infringing on freedom because no “idea is protected,” Molina said in an interview at the Nashua Public Library.

Since first being proposed last year, the laws have drawn considerable criticism from the online and technical industry, concerned they will stifle innovation, cripple the Internet and impede free speech.

In general, legislation has pitted providers of content, notably the music and film industries, against Silicon Valley.

The Obama administration has expressed concern. The Senate version is co-sponsored by both New Hampshire senators, among others.

Huge companies like Google, Wired magazine and Wikipedia altered or shut down their sites for up to 24 hours Wednesday to draw attention to the protest.

Concern also has been expressed in New Hampshire. For example, Jeremy Hitchcock, founder of Dyn Inc., a Manchester network provider, has drawn considerable attention for his public stance against the law, which he called “The Great Firewall of America” in an echo of China’s Internet-censorship efforts.

Hitchcock’s concern came about partly because of fears the law could harm the Domain Name System, one of the basic pieces of architecture that underpins the Internet.

In a December story in The Telegraph, Hitchcock indicated the controversy is making more technology firms take the process of government more seriously.

“If it doesn’t make it this time, it might just return in a year,” he said.

“It is interesting to see this as a way to mobilize people, a consciousness raiser,” said Haines of UNH.

Mobilization wasn’t always obvious in the area’s non-online world, even in computer areas at public libraries filled with after-school teens, who would presumably run up against the blackouts at Wikipedia and Google as part of their homework.

“We have had loads of kids, but haven’t really heard any comments or reaction,” said Amy Friedman, adult and teen services librarian at Rodgers Memorial Library in Hudson.

At Nashua Public Library, patrons hadn’t complained about being hamstrung on the Web, said Linda Taggart, supervisor of the reference department.

If anything, the temporary loss of Wikipedia raised awareness about other means of reference, and at the library that alternative tool is World Book Encyclopedia, Taggart said. Anyone with a Nashua Public Library membership can access it, either on library computers or through the library’s Web site.

At the library, Nashua resident Geoffrey Herrick said didn’t know about the protest of SOPA as he used a computer at the library. But he doesn’t like the idea of it.

“It’s overkill,” Herrick said. “They already have enough copyright laws in effect.”

Art LaBell of Nashua also didn’t know about SOPA or the black-out of Wikipedia. LaBell, who used one of the library’s computers to check messages and read items on the Internet, had never heard of Wikipedia.

When told about SOPA, LaBell blamed President Barack Obama. Government, he said, especially Obama, has created too many restrictive laws.

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-6528 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow McKeon on Twitter (@Telegraph_AMcK). David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.