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'Blackouts' spur Blunt, Kirk to oppose Internet regulation bill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 18, 2012 - WASHINGTON - In the wake of internet "blackout" protests Wednesday, some key lawmakers -- including U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill. -- abruptly withdrew their support or came out against legislation that aims to shut down sites that share pirated content.

While Blunt withdrew his earlier co-sponsorship of the "Protect Intellectual Property Act," calling the bill "flawed as it stands today," Kirk, who was not a co-sponsor, condemned the Senate bill as an "extreme measure [that] stifles First Amendment rights and internet innovation." Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also withdrew as a cosponsor of the bill.

The lawmakers' actions came on the day that several prominent Internet firms, including Wikipedia, staged blackouts in protest of the Senate PIPA bill and a companion House measure, the Stop Online Piracy Act, called SOPA. The companies worry that the bills, if approved, could be used to target legitimate internet sites whose users share content.

The 24-hour Wikipedia blackout blocked access to its English-language articles; Reddit.com shut down its social news service for half a day; Google blacked out the logo on its home page but did not shut down; and Craigslist altered its local home pages to a black screen directing users to a page opposing the House and Senate measures.

Blunt, who had co-sponsored the PIPA bill in May, issued a statement saying that he had backed the original version because he supported "the original intent of this bill -- to protect against the piracy of lawful content." However, Blunt said that when the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill, GOP senators objected to "substantive issues," which make the current bill "deeply flawed."

Asserting that American firms "have lost $135 billion in revenue annually as a result of rogue internet sites," Blunt said he thinks "we can come to a solution that will cut off the revenue sources for foreign websites dedicated to counterfeiting and piracy that steal American jobs, hurt the economy and harm consumers. But the Protect IP Act is flawed as it stands today, and I cannot support it moving forward."

In announcing his opposition to PIPA, Kirk said, "Freedom of speech is an inalienable right granted to each and every American, and the internet has become the primary tool with which we utilize this right. The internet empowers Americans to learn, create, innovate and express their views."

Kirk continued: "While we should protect American intellectual property, consumer safety and human rights, we should do so in a manner that specifically targets criminal activity. This extreme measure stifles First Amendment rights and internet innovation."

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the Judiciary Committee who backed the PIPA bill, was on an official visit to Cuba and could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A spokesman for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the senator had "concerns" about the legislation and had not cosponsored it.

"The provisions of this legislation are in flux," said the McCaskill spokesman, John LaBombard. "While Claire wants to make sure we can catch the frauds and cheats, she also has real concerns about limiting the freedom of the internet. She will continue to evaluate as the provisions are finalized."

In announcing his withdrawal as a cosponsor, Rubio called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to cancel the plan to hold a key procedural vote on the bill on Tuesday. "Congress should listen and avoid rushing through a bill that could have many unintended consequences," Rubio said.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.