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Cheezburger Network Goes Dark in SOPA Protest

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The furor over SOPA has gone too far when the favorite site of crazy cat people goes dark for a day in protest.

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This Wednesday, January 18, will be a landmark day in Internet history, as ICanHasCheezburger.com goes dark, and cat lovers around the world struggle through a day without Dr. Tinycat, Happycat, and the Itteh Bitteh Kitteh Committeh.

In fact, the whole Cheezburger-fueled empire will disappear for a day, depriving users of So Much Pun, Historic LOLs, Just Capshunz, and Must Have Cute sites, among others.

On that historic day, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is scheduled to begin a much-anticipated hearing about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), inviting critics from the industry to address the issue. To mark the event, Reddit, Wikipedia, and others say they're staging this protest against SOPA and its counterpart in the Senate, known as PROTECT IP.

Just in the last few days, the news on the online piracy bills has been coming thick and fast:
  • Last Thursday, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a co-sponsor of the Senate legislation, posted a press release that hinted he is inclined to cave under the pressure, saying he would propose "further study" for at least one controversial portion of the bill.
  • On Friday, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, a sponsor of the House version, announced he would pull a similar provision in the House bill. The provision would have required Internet service providers to block access to sites accused of piracy.
  • The White House posted a notice on its blog that it opposes SOPA in its current form, saying "Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small."
  • News Corp. (NWS) chief Rupert Murdoch, a SOPA supporter, launched a campaign in favor of the legislation on Twitter. His views, in 140 characters or less: "Piracy leader is Google who streams movies free, sells advts around them. No wonder pouring millions into lobbying." And this, on the White House post: "So Obama has thrown in his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery."
What's all the fuss about? The Cheezburger site, which showcases home videos and photos submitted by users, may offer an illustration.

Say, for example, a user captures the marvelous moment when a cat, driven out of his tiny mind by a dancing cursor, attacks a PC screen. Say the movie Titanic is playing on that screen. And say the theme song, "My Heart Will Go On," is playing in the background.

By posting the video, that cat lover may have violated existing copyright law against illegal streaming of copyrighted content, potentially injuring News Corp's Twentieth Century Fox Film; Viacom (VIA), owner of Paramount Pictures; and Sony (SNE) Music, among others.

Luckily, the backers of SOPA are after bigger game, namely "rogue sites" run by companies that illegally sell pirated content or counterfeit goods, usually from a safe offshore location.

But in any case, the proposed new law increases penalties and extends potential liability beyond the actual copyright violators. It gives copyright holders the power to take legal action against sites that carry links to offending sites, and online advertising networks that accept ads from them, and even online payment sites that do business with them, after they have been notified of the alleged violation. (The House version of the bill cushions the liability of these third parties somewhat, adding a requirement for court approval to legal action.)

So, sites that depend on a vast stream of unscreened user-generated content -- not just Cheezburger but Facebook, eBay (EBAY), LinkedIn (LNKD), and Google (GOOG), owner of YouTube -- oppose the law. But the list of Web companies potentially affected grows to include search engines and email providers as well, so the long list of SOPA opponents includes AOL (AOL) and Yahoo (YHOO), among hundreds of others.

On the other side are the companies that produce movies, music, and television programming, including those represented by the Motion Picture Association of America, which has a site in defense of the legislation.

But its supporters also include brand names that have been hard-hit by counterfeiting online and off, including fashion companies Adidas, Burberry, Dolce&Gabbana, and Tiffany (TIF). They also include pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly (LLY) and AstraZeneca (AZN), and related retailers like Rite Aid (RAD) and PetMeds.

The stakes on both sides, and for consumers, are huge. After all, nobody wants anybody's grandma buying sugar pills disguised as medicine from a fake-Canadian prescription drug site. And nobody wants the people behind Cheezburger to get thrown in the slammer or sued out of existence.

We'll know soon how Congress proposes to work this one out.

Web Watch in Brief:

Facebook Secrets To Be Revealed!
Facebook's long-awaited initial public offering may be scheduled for May 2012, AllThingsD.com reports, citing "several" unnamed sources.

That means we'll finally get a look at the social network's closely guarded financial figures -- as early as next month, if the May date is true. The documents must be filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission for review several months before a public offering.

Zappos Zapped
Zappos, the online shoe store owned by Amazon (AMZN), is the latest victim of a hack attack. The company revealed Sunday that personal information on an unknown number of its 24 million customers has been compromised. Full credit card data apparently was not captured, but the hackers got the last four digits, along with names, email addresses, home addresses, phone numbers, and email.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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