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December 28, 2011
It's pitched Hollywood and the music industry against the giants of Silicon Valley and the denizens of Capitol Hill.
The battle over a bill that aims to bear down on internet piracy has turned into a culture war over two American touchstones -- free speech... and the economy.
The Stop Online Piracy Act -- known as Sopa - is intended to blacklist renegade sites like Pirate Bay that share copyrighted films and music.
But critics say it creates the building blocks for a Great American Firewall -- a catch-all clampdown that threatens internet mainstays like Google, Facebook and Youtube. They say it will curb creativity, cost jobs -and even stifle free speech.
Under the provisions of the bill, uploading clips of movies or TV shows to Facebook or YouTube could become a criminal act. Streaming of copyrighted content could land you with a five-year jail term.
One group that opposes the bill, Fight for the Future, even claimed Justin Bieber could go to prison for posting covers of Usher songs on YouTube.
The bill would also allow the Justice Department to get court orders against the providers of the unique addresses that label every site, known as domain name systems.
Critics argue that going after those who provide such addresses would amount to a fundamental attack on the plumbing of the internet -- and would in any case be ineffective, since experience pirates are adept at finding other ways to get their sites up and running.
But despite the growing clamour of criticism, support for the bill is growing. Its backers argue that sales of counterfeit goods over the internet reached $135bn last year -- and this argument has found favour in Congress.
The bill looks sure to pass in some form. A similar proposal - known as Protect IP -- has broad support in Congress. It looks like Washington is listening to copyright holders and their powerful pals.
Silicon valley and free speech advocates are now working flat out to try and kill the bill.