Internet companies led by Google Inc. are using their online clout to stoke opposition to Hollywood-backed anti-piracy measures in the U.S. Congress that they say will encourage censorship and chill innovation.
Google, owner of the world’s most popular search engine, placed a link on its home page today opposing the House and Senate bills, joining protests by Wikipedia and other websites. Google had about 400 million daily U.S. searches in December, according to Internet measurement firm comScore Inc., dwarfing the 111 million viewers of last year’s Super Bowl game.
Public criticism led by Google, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. slowed an initial “smooth glide to passage” for the anti-piracy measures supported by the entertainment industry, Rogan Kersh, an associate dean at New York University’s Wagner School who conducts research on lobbying, said in an interview.
“Google and Facebook and Twitter are part of our daily lives in a way that most of us find very appealing,” Kersh said. “These are sexy brands. If you’re a member of Congress, you don’t want to be on the wrong side of the social media and new media darlings of America.”
Google typically devotes its home page to displaying its own services, not taking stands on legislation, and the “Google” icon is often used to commemorate historical events. Today, the icon is covered by a black rectangle, and the home page links to a website that asks visitors to sign an online petition urging Congress to reject the legislation.
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia run by a nonprofit organization where users contribute entries, is shutting the English version of its website for 24 hours to protest the measures. Today, that page is blacked out and carries a message saying that the bills “could fatally damage the free and open Internet.”
Microsoft Corp., the world’s largest software maker, said in a statement yesterday that it opposes the House measure as currently drafted. The company said it doesn’t plan to shut down its online services in protest.
The Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate are backed by the movie and music industries as a means to crack down on the sale of counterfeit goods by non-U.S. websites. Hollywood studios want lawmakers to ensure that Internet companies such as Google share responsibility for curbing the distribution of pirated material.
The so-called blackout day to protest anti-piracy legislation is “abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today,” Christopher Dodd, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.
‘Incite Their Users’
“It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests,” said Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who served three decades in the Senate.
News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch called Google a “piracy leader” in a Jan. 14 post on Twitter, saying that it streams movies for free and sells advertisements around them. A day later he wrote in his Twitter account that Google is a “great company doing many exciting things. Only one complaint, and it’s important.”
Miranda Higham, a News Corp. spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Samantha Smith, a Google spokeswoman, said the company respects copyright. “Last year we took down 5 million infringing Web pages from our search results,” she said in an e-mail yesterday.
Murdoch represents a “radioactive” brand and his comments are “terrible timing” for supporters of the anti-piracy legislation, Kersh of New York University said.
“As supervisor of a media empire that is best known at present for hacking into people’s personal phone accounts, this is not someone you want arguing for more government involvement in the lives of the public,” Kersh said.
The Senate is scheduled to hold a procedural vote Jan. 24 to see whether there is enough support to begin debate on its version of the legislation bill.
Representative Lamar Smith, who heads the House Judiciary Committee, said he expects his panel to resume consideration of the House bill in February. The panel began debating the measure in a December session and members offered about 60 amendments.
Smith called the protest by Wikipedia and others a “publicity stunt” that “does a disservice to its users by promoting fear instead of facts,” according to an e-mailed statement yesterday.
David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, said the bills “would grant new powers to law enforcement to filter the Internet.”
“We know from experience that these powers are on the wish list of oppressive regimes throughout the world,” David Drummond said in a blog post today.
Facebook’s Washington page has a tab today that says the anti-piracy legislation could “create very real problems for Internet companies like ours that are a primary driver of innovation, growth, and job creation in the 21st century economy.” Facebook is encouraging users to share the tab with friends and provides a way to write members of Congress.
Matt Graves, a Twitter spokesman, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
The administration of President Barack Obama cast some doubt over the legislation’s prospects on Jan. 14, saying in a blog post that it wouldn’t support measures that encourage censorship or disrupt the structure of the Internet.
The blog post, signed by three White House technology officials, marked the administration’s most significant foray into a fight between content creators and Web companies that has been playing out in Congress.
Obama, who draws support from both Hollywood and the Internet industry, is trying to “steer a line” between the competing interests, Kersh said.
The president received $1.34 million in campaign donations from employees of the computer and Internet industries since January 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks political giving. Obama received $1.02 million from workers in the television, movie and music industries during the same period.
Smith, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said Jan. 13 that he would remove a provision from his bill that would require Internet-service providers, when ordered by a court, to block access to non-U.S. websites offering pirated content.
Senator Patrick Leahy , a Vermont Democrat who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Jan. 12 that he’s willing to consider dropping a similar provision from the bill he sponsored. Opponents say such website-blocking may harm the stability of the Internet’s domain-name system.
The Senate measure, S. 968, cleared Leahy’s committee in May. The House bill is H.R. 3261.