TV networks at war with Internet users

Two quietly introduced Congressional bills that would censor the Internet in the name of anti-piracy suddenly went viral this week and mushroomed into a major issue that resulted in a shut down of as many as 10,000 web sites in a massive protest. It appears the protesters have won, at least for now.

The showdown was characterized as a major battle of old media vs. new media. The parent companies of all the major television networks joined the motion picture and recording associations to back the legislation, called SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) in the House and Senate, while a who’s who of major Internet companies, including heavyweights Google and Facebook, are on the other side.

The television networks were charged with conspiracies that they prevented coverage of the hot button issue on their television news programming. In fact, NBC distributed coffee mugs to its employees to rally support for the bills a few months ago. The mugs say: “Steal this mug! But not our content (and our jobs).”

On his MSNBC program, “Up,” host Chris Hayes told his audience that NBC Universal “is not at all neutral in this legislative battle.” Hayes took on the company, airing a segment about the controversy. Staff members on “Up” joked afterward about Hayes having to clean out his desk, and he wrote on Twitter, “That show took a few years off my life.”

NBC Universal’s General Counsel, Rick Cotton, wrote a memo that if the anti-piracy laws don’t pass Congress, NBC Universal’s business will be in so much trouble that it will have to shut down or cut off deals with suppliers.

“We are writing to ask you for help on an issue that is one our top business priorities—content theft on the Internet, which is a major threat to the strength of our business,” Cotton wrote. “Our major guilds and unions are joining us in the fight to keep our businesses strong so that the tidal wave of content theft does not kill jobs. But if the current trend continues, it’s not too strong to say that this threat could adversely affect our business relationship with you.”

As protests have erupted on the Internet in recent days, companies against the legislation joined in. On Wednesday, Wikipedia made its content unavailable, replaced with a warning: “Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet.”

Visitors to Reddit found the site offline in protest. Google’s home page featured a black swatch that covered the search engine’s label. Thousands of others suspended operations to raise public awareness about the SOPA and PIPA bills.

SOPA and PIPA are, essentially, two versions of the same anti-piracy bill. SOPA is the House version, while PIPA resides in the Senate. Both SOPA and PIPA are intended to curb online piracy, specifically piracy facilitated by “foreign rogue websites,” meaning sites that are hosted outside of the United States, and thus outside the reach of U.S. law.

In both bills is an anti-circumvention provision, which would make it illegal to inform users how to access blocked sites. Another provision cited by critics is the “vigilante” part of SOPA/PIPA, which allows ISPs to voluntarily block access to certain foreign websites, “in good faith,” if they have “credible evidence” that these sites are devoted to illegally distributing copyrighted material.

Over the weekend, President Obama said he would not support the bills as they are now written, but did not completely write them off. The president is caught in a dispute between many old Hollywood friends, who raise money for him, and the new generation of Internet executives, who also support him.

The President’s slipping support set-off an impromptu tweet over the weekend by News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, who said the administration was against legislation designed to combat Internet piracy.

“So Obama has thrown in his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery,” Murdoch posted on his personal Twitter account.

Murdoch, whose media empire includes Fox TV, The Wall Street Journal and Fox Studios in the U.S., followed with several other tweets, attacking Google as the “piracy leader” for streaming movies free.

Google called Murdoch’s weekend tweets “nonsense.” Samantha Smith, a Google spokesperson, said “last year we took down five million infringing web pages from our search results and invested more than $60 million in the fight against bad ads. Like many other tech companies, we believe that there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking U.S. companies to censor the Internet.”

Both Google and Facebook already have blasted the television networks, Hollywood studios and music labels for heavy-handed tactics they claim are needed to save U.S. jobs.