Tech moguls to Congress: Please don’t break the Internet

December 15, 2011, 3:33 PM UTC

FORTUNE — One of the problems with discussing SOPA and PROTECT IP, the wildly overreaching anti-piracy measures under debate in Congress, is that the proposed laws pit two industries against each other: media vs. tech. That makes it sound as if the whole thing is just businesses looking out for themselves and working Capitol Hill for their own interests.

That is true. But it also so happens that, in this case, tech is right and media is so wrong that it’s hard to adequately characterize its level of wrongness. So when a set of tech moguls alleges that SOPA, the House’s version of the legislation, will “give the U.S. government the power to censor the Web using techniques similar to those used by China, Malaysia and Iran,” it might sound like mere rhetoric, purposefully overwrought to gain ground in a political fight. But actually, it’s not far off the mark. (Chris Dodd, who revolved from the Senate into the top job at the Motion Picture Association of America in March, even favorably cited China’s treatment of Google (GOOG) as an example of how private companies can be forced to censor the Internet.)

The moguls signed an open letter that was published as a full-page ad yesterday in The New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers. Among the signers (all of whom are identified as “founder” or “co-founder”) are Sergey Brin of Google, Jack Dorsey of Twitter, Elon Musk of PayPal (EBAY), Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post (AOL), Marc Andreessen of Netscape and Andreessen Horowitz, and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia.

That so many big names are signing on publicly to fierce opposition to the bill shows that Silicon Valley is truly scared that this thing might actually pass. Still, while those names carry weight in tech circles, many in Washington might not have even heard of many of them, though lawmakers are surely aware of Chris Dodd and many other media-industry heavyweights.

Notably absent from the letter is the name of Mark Zuckerberg, though Facebook is on record opposing the legislation.

As is pretty much everybody except for the media industry, its lobbyists, and its congressional sponsors. SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, is scheduled for a vote in the Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Hence the timing of the open letter. Still, the bill is expected to pass to the full House.

Although sponsor Lamar Smith (R-Texas) made some minor concessions on the bill before bringing it to the committee for a vote. Opponents are far from appeased.

SOPA and PROTECT IP, the Senate’s version, are aimed at foreign Web sites that offer pirated digital products like music and movies, as well as those that offer knockoff trademarked goods, like fake Gucci handbags. SOPA, the broader of the two bills, would allow the Justice Department to seek a court order to shut off access to such sites from the United States.

The orders would be served on American companies like search engines, Internet service providers, ad networks, and credit-card processors. Opponents note the absence of due process and the fact that the bill would “criminalize the intermediaries” of the Internet, as Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt put it.

There are well-founded fears, too, that arbitrary court orders to shut down access to Internet domains would wreak technical havoc and have all kinds of unintended consequences.

A proposed compromise bill, OPEN, met with the disapproval of SOPA supporters last week. This even though OPEN is aimed directly at pirate sites rather than at innocent American companies that just happen to move traffic around the Internet. OPEN would put the U.S. International Trade Commission, rather than Justice, in charge of enforcing what are, after all, international trade laws.

SOPA opponents worry that passage will do grave harm to innovation on the Internet. “We’ve all had the good fortune to found Internet companies and nonprofits in a regulatory climate that promotes entrepreneurship, innovation, the creation of content and free expression online,” the tech moguls wrote in their open letter.