Jan. 9, 2012 -- The first item currently on the U.S. Senate's agenda for 2012 pits Hollywood against Silicon Valley. It is a procedural vote on PIPA -- a bill originally called the Protect IP Act. The bill is meant to stop the copying of "intellectual property" online -- movies, music, books and so forth -- but opponents call it nothing less than Internet censorship.
PIPA and a similar bill in the House -- the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA -- have been presented as a way to protect movie studios, record labels and others. Supporters range from the Country Music Association to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But major players in the online world, including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, say the bills could require your Internet provider to block websites that are involved in digital file sharing. And search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing could be stopped from linking to them -- antithetical, they say, to the ideal of an open Internet.
"While I support their goal of reducing copyright infringement (which I don't believe these acts would accomplish), I am shocked that our lawmakers would contemplate such measures that would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world," said Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google, in a post on Google+.
"There isn't one technology company or venture capitalist who supports these bills," said Markham Erickson, the executive director of NetCoalition, a trade group for Internet firms, in an interview with ABC News. "And yet both bills continue because of the way Washington works."
The battle has become bitter enough that it was suggested that major websites might even go dark temporarily -- perhaps replacing their home pages with appeals to stop the two bills. Erickson would not deny it completely.
"An 'Internet blackout' would obviously be both drastic and unprecedented," said NetCoalition in a statement. "We hope that the Senate will cancel its scheduled vote on PIPA so that we can get back to working with members on how to address the concerns raised by the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] and others without threatening our nation's security or future innovation and jobs."
The heads of major Internet companies say they grant that music publishers and Hollywood studios have a real problem -- people are stealing their music and movies, making digital copies that are as crisp and clear as the originals, and offering them for download, often from overseas websites.
The music and film industries say they consider that a major threat, even a decade after Napster made online file sharing a major issue.
"More than 2.2 million hard-working, middle-class people in all 50 states depend on the entertainment industry for their jobs and many millions more work in other industries that rely on intellectual property," said Michael O'Leary of the Motion Picture Association of America in a statement. "For all these workers and their families, online content and counterfeiting by these foreign sites mean declining incomes, lost jobs and reduced health and retirement benefits."
The Recording Industry Association of America has also spoken strongly.
"Every day that these sites operate without recourse can mean millions of dollars lost to American companies, employees, and economy, and an ongoing threat to the security and safety of our citizens," said the RIAA's Mitch Glazier.
But the devil is in the details, said NetCoalition's Erickson.
"This bill reverses the policy that has been in place since the beginning of the Web," he said, "that Internet companies shouldn't be liable, nor should they be required to police or snoop on their users."
What's more, said Erickson, many members of Congress have admitted they do not fully understand the bill. Erickson said some have conceded they don't know what a domain name is.
Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who sponsored the House bill, said Silicon Valley's concerns are largely hypothetical. Sen. Ron Wyden, D.-Ore., who favors a compromise bill, has said he plans a filibuster when PIPA comes up for its first floor vote.
Both the content providers and the Internet companies have lobbied Congress hard. So far, most committee votes on the issue have gone against the Internet companies.