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Politicians have long debated how best to protect freedom of expression while also respecting copyright laws, and the web is buzzing with concerns that new proposals in Congress threaten to disrupt that delicate balance.

The House’s Stop Online Piracy Act, as well as the Senate’s Protect IP Act, are intended to punish websites and companies that host unauthorized copyrighted content. But critics argue that the vague wording would temper freedom of expression by imposing harsh penalties on and possibly shutting down sites that enable users to share information without many restrictions — which would effectively allow wide government censorship of the Internet.

In addition to bipartisan sponsorship, the proposals are supported by the Motion Picture Association of America, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Federation of Musicians, and others seeking to protect copyrighted material like movies, songs, and software. According to the Chamber of Commerce, Hollywood studios, record labels, and publishing houses lose $135 billion annually from piracy and counterfeiting. Most provisions of the acts are aimed at punishing foreign websites from violating U.S. intellectual property laws, but they would also regulate content on domestic sites.

On the other side of the debate are online activists as well as large companies like Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and the Consumer Electronics Association. These groups say the Stop Online Piracy Act, which was introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) last month, gives the government too much power to shut down websites accused of violating copyright laws. If passed, it would drastically change sites like YouTube, on which users regularly sing copyrighted music or post clips of television shows and movies. Opponents’ concerns are summarized in the video below.

PROTECT IP Act Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

The controversy came to a head during a House hearing Wednesday, but a decision has yet to be reached. Meanwhile, Yahoo has canceled its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and other companies have threatened to follow suit. Whatever the outcome, the debate will continue to pit Internet companies and activists against the entertainment industry and politicians.

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