Some of the opponents' most alarmist predictions, in truth, don't stand up to scrutiny; the feds will not shut down Twitter if SOPA goes into effect. And concerns that Facebook and YouTube will have to spend inordinate sums policing their own sites — undermining the social web in the process — seem overblown.

Moreover, Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who authored PIPA, has agreed to pull back — for now — on his most controversial proposal: using the domain name system (DNS) to block access to rogue sites.

Critics say the DNS provision, which aimed to make offending sites disappear from the web, amounted to a dangerous tinkering with the basic plumbing of the Internet.

But delaying that provision does not mean killing it, for good. And critics of SOPA and PIPA, if guilty of overheated rhetoric, have some legitimate concerns about the legislation.

Consider this: SOPA not only builds new obstacles to rogue sites, it cracks down on the tools used to get around such obstacles. Trouble is, those are the same tools used by dissidents abroad to circumvent their countries' censorship regimes.

During the Arab Spring, for instance, tens of thousands of protesters in Egypt used Tor, software developed by a pair of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students with a US Navy laboratory, to get access to banned web sites and remain anonymous in the process.

Whitehouse, for his part, points out that the proposed crackdown on circumvention tools appears only in the House version of the bill and not in the Senate version that he co-sponsored.

But if both bills somehow pass as presently written, and the "circumvention" provision makes it into the final legislation that goes before both chambers, he will face a difficult choice — one his office declined to speculate on for this article.


SOFT POWER

David Segal, a former Rhode Island state representative who now serves as executive director of Demand Progress, a civil liberties advocacy group, points to another concern: the legislation, he says, could kill the next Facebook or YouTube before it gets off the ground.

At the heart of the legislation are provisions allowing the US Attorney General and copyright holders to go to court in a bid to shut down search engine, payment processer, and ad network connections to copyright-infringing sites.

But one section of SOPA, Segal notes, would grant those search engines, payment processors, and ad networks legal immunity if they voluntarily shut off access to sites.

Segal imagines Hollywood using this provision to exercise "soft power" — Disney calling an advertising network, for instance, to suggest that a YouTube-like site is infringing, and warn of legal action.

The ad network, with legal immunity on its side, then cuts off access to what might have been the Next Big Thing rather than deal with a potential court fight.

Proponents call the concern misguided. Start-ups that aren't swiping content — that aren't breaking the law — have little to fear, they say. And search engines, payment processors, and ad networks are only granted immunity if they act "in good faith" and cut off a site based on "credible evidence" that it is stealing intellectual property.

It's a fair point.

But it's also fair to wonder who would have the advantage in these skirmishes: the Hollywood behemoth with the big legal staff or the 19-year-old entrepreneur operating out of his parents' basement.

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