January 19, 2012, 4:22 PM

Retailers take a stand on anti-piracy legislation

Amazon is among the retailers that used its e-commerce site to protest SOPA and PIPA.

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Several major web sites, including a handful of e-retailers, yesterday rallied to protest two Congressional bills that, opponents say, would hinder online commerce and free expression.

Their actions led millions of web users to sign petitions yesterday protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), legislation pending in the U.S. House of Representatives intended to prevent foreigners from stealing and making money from the online intellectual property of U.S. companies; SOPA’s counterpart in the Senate is called the Protect IP Act (PIPA). The bills are intended to curb the sale online of pirated copyright-protected material, such as movies and software. Critics say the legislation, as written, would also give authorities wide-reaching authority to shut down web sites based on complaints by copyright holders. For example, if a consumer were to post a video to a retailer’s site that a movie studio claimed included a clip from a copyrighted film, the government could shut down the e-retail site, say opponents of the legislation.

Retailers, including Amazon.com Inc., the world’s largest e-retailer and No. 1 in Internet Retailer’s Top 500 Guide, T-shirt e-retailer Threadless.com (No. 514 in the Second 500 Guide), urban apparel retailer Karmaloop.com (No. 180 in the Top 500) and electronics e-retailer Sparkfun Electronics used their e-commerce sites to declare their opposition to the bills and link consumers to sites where they could learn more or sign petitions.

Amazon.com, for example, displayed on the right side of its home page a message that said “reasons to oppose or modify SOPA.” Clicking the box linked consumers to NetCoalition.com, an Internet advocacy group that opposes the legislation. NetCoalition is backed by a handful of major Internet companies, including Amazon.com, Google Inc., eBay Inc. and Yahoo Inc.

All consumers saw during the first five seconds of their visit to Threadless.com yesterday was a blacked-out image in the middle of the home page. Clicking on the black areas linked visitors to a page set up by Google Inc. (Google.com/takeaction) that provided information about the legislation and the opportunity to sign a petition protesting it. Karmaloop.com also linked to the Google protest site via a home page appeal that read: “Stop government censorship—oppose SOPA and PIPA today.”

Google, which has been vocal in its opposition to the legislation, yesterday covered the word Google on its home page and on search results pages with a black bar. It also linked to the petition page. Google says 4.5 million people signed the petition yesterday, according to the Los Angeles Times; Google provided no immediate comment to Internet Retailer. Social messaging site Twitter today says users posted 2.4 million tweets related to the SOPA and PIPA legislation between midnight and 4 p.m. yesterday, and that the top five trending terms used in posts yesterday all related to the legislation. Community-generated online encyclopedia site Wikipedia, which went dark in protest of the legislation yesterday, says more than 162 million people visited the site yesterday and saw its protest message.

Sparkfun Electronics posted a message on the Sparkfun.com home page yesterday that explained to visitors why it decided to take a stand against SOPA and PIPA, saying the bills could lead to broad censorship on the web and would give too much control to government authorities to potentially cut off funds and shut down sites in its pursuit of defending copyrights. “The legislation strikes at the openness and freedom of the Internet, but moreover, it strikes at businesses, like us, that live and die by the uncensored web we call home,” the company says.

The e-retailer says it was a tough decision for the company to make a public statement about the legislation. “Without a track record of being politically outspoken as an organization, we didn't want to set precedents that would put us on the slippery slope to endorsing candidates or championing issues well outside of our sphere. We're a business, not a super-PAC. But SOPA and PIPA are different. These bills are about censorship, plain and simple.”

A day after the web-based protests, more than a dozen members of Congress are reconsidering their support of the bills, according to reports and information from those officials’ offices (though some started to reconsider before Wednesday). For instance, Orrin Hatch, a Republican Senator from Utah and one of the co-sponsors of PIPA, issued a statement yesterday withdrawing his support for the current version of the Senate bill. “Rushing something with such potential for far-reaching consequences is something I cannot support and that’s why I will not only vote against moving the bill forward next week but also remove my co-sponsorship of the bill,” he said. “Given the legitimate vocal concerns, it is imperative that we take a step back to allow everyone to come together and find a reasonable solution.”

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