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‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ divides Rep. Bill Owens, Matt Doheny

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An effort by Congress to curtail online Justin Bieber knock-offs and fake prescription apothecaries has become so politically toxic that even sponsors of the bill are hedging their support.

The Stop Online Piracy Act, supported by the entertainment industry and pharmaceutical companies, would allow the Department of Justice or private companies to attempt to shut down sites that are accused of committing or permitting copyright infringement — think unauthorized YouTube pages that copy an artist’s music. But some companies, including Facebook, Google and Yahoo, say the legislation goes too far and could amount to censorship and “breaking” the Internet.

And it’s not just corporate titans who are doing battle. The debate is playing out writ small in the north country, where the Democrat who serves in Congress is a sponsor and his likely Republican opponent in November is chiding him for it.

“I got on this bill because I think it’s one that is a good starting point,” said Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh.

Mr. Owens said that Internet piracy costs hundreds of thousands of jobs in the nation, and studies have suggested that it costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars.

“If I’m a content developer and my content is being stolen, that means I’m not getting revenue from it, which means I’m not going to produce the content and I’m not going to hire people,” Mr. Owens said.

But Mr. Owens said he would be “amenable” to some change in the bill’s due process provisions — that is, what sites get shut down for doing what and how they can appeal that decision.

That’s been one of the main concerns in videos and commentaries posted on tech blogs and sites, of which there has been a deluge. Via civil complaints, media company lawyers can unilaterally shut down the site of a small, fledgling startup for spurious reasons, one such video warns; and giving power to the government to restrict content is letting the camel’s nose under the tent, a surefire path to China-like censorship.

“I think it needs to be carefully vetted,” Mr. Owens said of the enforcement provisions. “I’m just saying I’m open to discussions about changes in the way the statute is enforced. I’m not saying it’s definitely needed.”

Mr. Owens said he considered the censorship complaints overstated. He said that the anti-piracy provisions for raw goods coming in from Canada, which he’s had experience with, have never been abused by the government or by companies trying to squash smaller rivals.

And, he said, just because he’s a sponsor doesn’t mean he can’t cite parts of the bill he doesn’t like.

“This happens all the time,” Mr. Owens said. “One of the reasons you become a co-sponsor is so the primary drafter of the bill will listen to your concerns.”

Matthew A. Doheny doesn’t buy that.

Mr. Doheny, a businessman of Watertown, is the most likely Republican opponent to Mr. Owens in November and released a statement criticizing Mr. Owens’s stance on SOPA. He also criticized Mr. Owens in an interview for sponsoring the bill while also raising concerns about it.

“Right now, in terms of how it’s currently drafted, there is no due process,” Mr. Doheny said. “Bill’s a lawyer. He knows better than that, to put himself on a bill.”Mr. Doheny said that while he’s concerned with piracy, there’s a better way to root it out than shutting down sites that may not even know they’re hosting pilfered content.

“It’s like putting a nuclear missile where we need a scalpel,” Mr. Doheny said. “We need to cut off the funding as opposed to blowing up people who need to do commerce.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California and a vocal SOPA critic, has put competing legislation up for consideration in the House. Mr. Doheny said it was better than the legislation that Mr. Owens has sponsored because it was more focused on cutting off the funding for illegal content, rather than shutting down sites that host it.

“If you look at Issa’s bill, that’s what it’s trying to get more at,” Mr. Doheny said. “What’s the funding source? Having the Department of Justice or a large company having the ability to shut down large sites is just totally against business and our First Amendment freedoms.”

But he said Mr. Issa’s bill was imperfect, too.

“You’ve got to be pretty darn careful when you’re shutting down businesses and infringing upon free speech,” Mr. Doheny said.

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