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PIPA and SOPA: What you need to know

As PIPA and SOPA work their way through Congress, the controversial bills have raised many questions. The most common: Wait, what are PIPA and SOPA?

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The original bills would have let copyright holders and Internet service providers block access to pirate websites. Critics and Internet engineers complained that would allow copyright holders to interfere in the behind-the-scenes system that seamlessly directs computer users to websites. They said that causing deliberate failures in the lookup system to prevent visits to pirate websites could more easily allow hackers to trick users into inadvertently visiting websites that could infect their computers. The White House also took issue with that approach, saying "We must avoid creating new cybersecurity risks or disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet."

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Responding to the critics, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said he is taking the blocking measure out of his bill. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., also is reworking his bill to address those cybersecurity issues.

Q. What are other concerns with the bills?

A. Critics say they would constrain free speech, curtail innovation and discourage new digital distribution methods. NetCoalition, a group of leading Internet and technology companies, says they could be forced to pre-screen all user comments, pictures and videos — effectively killing social media. Search engines, Internet service providers and social networks could be forced shut down websites linked to any type of pirated content.

In addition, critics contend that young, developing businesses and smaller websites could be saddled with expensive litigation costs. And, they contend existing rights holders could impede new investment in the technology sector.

The White House said it would "not support any legislation that reduces freedom of expression ... or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet."

Leahy responded that there is nothing in the legislation that would require websites, Internet service providers, search engines, ad networks, payment processors or others to monitor their networks. He said his bill protects third parties from liability that may arise from actions to comply with a court order.

Michael O'Leary, a senior vice president at the Motion Picture Association of America, a key supporter of the legislation, said his industry is built upon a vibrant First Amendment. "We would never support any legislation that would limit this fundamental American right," he said. Neither PIPA nor SOPA "implicate free expression but focus solely on illegal conduct, which is not free speech."

Q. Who else supports the bills?

A. The most visible supporters are entertainment-related groups such as the MPAA and the National Music Publishers' Association. But the bills also enjoy support from the pharmaceutical industry, which is trying to shut down illegal online drug operations, and electronic and auto industries concerned about people going online to buy counterfeit parts that may be substandard. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several law enforcement groups also back the legislation.

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