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The Latest From The SOPA Soap Opera

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The debate about controversial anti-piracy legislation is more fevered than ever with both sides slinging rapid-fire press releases decrying crime, censorship and more. Today, technology and content interests are clashing in Washington over a proposed mark-up of the law. Here’s an update of recent developments surrounding the Stop Online Piracy Act:

What is the current state of SOPA?

The bill is being debated today in a mark-up session in the House Judiciary Committee. The day is the culmination of an intensive week-long lobbying session that saw both sides take out dramatic full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal (NSDQ: NWS), New York Times (NYSE: NYT) and other major papers. The bill’s sponsors want to use the session to present a “manager’s amendment” intended to placate critics who say the bill is a dangerous mistake.

What is taking place at the hearing?

Reports by political blogs suggest the hearing is turning into a circus with a packed room and one opponent demanding the proposed law be read in full. Opponents have also proposed around 60 amendments but it is unclear how many will be discussed. If everything goes according to plan for SOPA supporters, the next step would be to bring it for a full vote in the House where the bill (for now) has bipartisan support.

What would the legislation actually do?

Supporters, led by Hollywood and the music industry, say SOPA will stop “rogue websites” by cutting off their financial and technical infrastructure. In practice, this means forcing businesses like ad companies and domain registrars to stop working with them. The bill also calls for technical measures that effectively unplug the sites from the internet.

Why are people so upset?

Critics say the bill will create a chilling effect for free speech, noting that deleting websites is a practice used in places like Iran and China. Engineers say the law’s proposal to unplug websites could have disastrous technical consequences and work at cross-purposes to efforts to improve internet security.

Who is right?

It can be hard to pierce through the rhetoric. It seems a stretch to say that Hollywood wants to create Chinese-style censorship. On the other hand, SOPA supporters claims about crime and protecting America seem disingenuous at best. My own take is that the bill is overkill and is likely to have unforeseen consequences. I think the competing piece of legislation called OPEN would be a better departure point for going after the rogue websites. But you should decide for yourself.

Who should I read to keep up on this?

The reporting on SOPA has been as partisan as the issue itself. For a balanced view of the debate so far, see today’s feature in the New York Times technology section. Likewise, CNET’s Washington reporter Declan McCullagh offers a good summary today on the politics of the bill as well as an impartial FAQ. Mike Masnick of Techdirt is a partisan but his website and Twitter feed are a good way to keep up with the very latest developments.