The legislation pits free speech advocates against private enterprise.
WASHINGTON - Thousands of Internet sites went dark Wednesday in protest of a pair of federal anti-piracy bills that are creating sharp divisions within Congress.
The bills, which would strengthen penalties for pirating movies, music, merchandise and books, have pitted corporate interests against each other and against free-speech advocates.
Wednesday's protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House and the Senate's Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) took place both on websites and through e-mails and phone calls to congressional offices. Supporters, including the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce, were urging that lawmakers stand firm in support of the bills, which they say will stop a fast-growing problem of counterfeit and pirated products sold on the Web.
Minnesota's congressional delegation is showing its own split on the bills. Seven of its members oppose the bills and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., even helped promote the pushback Wednesday. However, the state's two Democratic senators -- Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken -- are co-sponsoring the Senate legislation.
Ellison shut down his campaign website Wednesday to show his support for the protest. Ellison said the legislation would pose too many problems for sites, creating a First Amendment chilling effect.
The bills "would devastate free speech, Internet innovation and job creation," he wrote on his website. "I strongly oppose these bills and believe there are better ways to fight piracy without infringing upon America's right to free speech."
By mid-afternoon Wednesday, supporters had deluged Ellison's office with more than 800 e-mails and 100 phone calls.
The protests proved at least somewhat effective. At least three co-sponsors of the bills withdrew their support by the end of the day.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has tentatively scheduled a Tuesday vote on PIPA.
"Sen. Franken has heard the concerns that many Minnesotans have voiced over the past few days about the Protect IP Act, and he believes we need to reach a compromise that will keep the Internet free and open and protect American jobs," said Ed Shelleby, Franken's communications director.
Linden Zakula, Klobuchar's communications director, said, "The senator believes we need to address concerns being raised today and work out a compromise that balances free exchanges on the Internet with stopping foreign piracy that hurts our economy."
Bipartisan unity in House
Among Minnesota's House delegation, opposition to SOPA has bridged the partisan divide, uniting Democrats and Republicans. Reps. Michele Bachmann, Chip Cravaack, John Kline and Erik Paulsen, all Republicans, and Democrats Betty McCollum and Tim Walz oppose SOPA, saying they can't support the legislation in its current form.
Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat, is "leaning 'no'" on the legislation, said Cherie Slayton, his chief of staff.
Paulsen said in a statement: "While I believe copyright infringement and piracy should be prosecuted to the full extent that the law affords, I have deep concerns about the effects of SOPA and therefore cannot support it in its current form."
SOPA's sponsors don't expect action on the bill in the House until at least February.
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @stribmitchell.