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As sites black out in SOPA protest, Owens hears from critics

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A self-proclaimed “geek,” Champion resident Leonard A. Flack had never contacted a federal representative before.

That was until Democratic Rep. William L. Owens became a co-sponsor of the Stop Online Piracy Act, a piece of legislation that is aimed at curtailing the theft of copyrighted material but has been criticized by tech giants and everyday geeks alike as overly broad and damaging to the Internet.

“I’m not big on anything that messes with (the Domain Name System) or gives the government wide, sweeping authority to go in and shut down websites footloose and fancy free,” said Mr. Flack, who describes himself politically as independent-minded and “liberty-focused.”

Mr. Flack called Mr. Owens’s Washington, D.C., office several weeks ago and received a generic response via email a few days later. The email said the bill would help protect American jobs and wouldn’t erode civil liberties, Mr. Flack said,.

“Obviously, I strongly disagree with that,” Mr. Flack said.

He is not alone in urging a sponsor of the Stop Online Piracy Act to reconsider. Technology giants such as Google and Wikipedia used their websites as megaphones to amplify concerns about the bill, blacking out all or portions of their sites to symbolize the censorship they believe could occur with passage of the bill.

Instead of an online encyclopedia, Wikipedia was transformed into a directory for Congress. It instructed readers to enter their ZIP code, which brings up contact information for their local representative.

Mr. Owens’s spokesman said the office saw an uptick in calls Wednesday. A staff member on Wednesday posted to Mr. Owens’s Facebook page, requesting that constituents chime in on the matter. By 6 p.m., the post had received 85 comments, all of which were anti-SOPA.

And a search on the microblogging website Twitter revealed a stream of anti-SOPA messages directed at Mr. Owens’s account.

“Many of them want to see changes in the legislation, which Rep. Owens has been open to since the beginning,” Sean R. Magers said in an electronic message.

Critics say the legislation would give the Department of Justice or private companies too much leeway to shut down foreign sites accused of hosting or selling stolen content, such as full Hollywood movies or fake prescriptions.

But its supporters argue that stolen content costs hundreds of thousands of American jobs and billions in the American economy. Mr. Owens has said the bill might need stronger “due process” provisions, giving websites more avenues to appeal a decision that finds them guilty of hosting illicit content.

The bill is before the House Judiciary Committee.

Some of the more contentious sections of the bill already have been changed. For example, the bill now applies only to foreign sites.

But that’s not enough for critics.

“I think (piracy) needs to be discouraged,” Mr. Flack said. “But (SOPA) does more to promote the possibility of censorship and really breaking the Internet in the way that we currently understand it.”

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