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Web protests over piracy bills while China slaps Internet curbs

Legislation in Congress aims to curb Web theft of intellectual property while Beijing cracks down on bloggers. Both nations must weigh the cost to creativity that leads to innovation.

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An employee works at Wikipedia in San Francisco on Jan. 18, a day of protest over anti-piracy bills in Congress. Wikipedia used a 24-hour blackout of its English-language articles to make it point.

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

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The Internet is not only one of humanity’s greatest inventions but is itself a tool for creativity. Yet in the world’s two largest economies, China and the United States, government is trying to curb its use.

In Congress, two bills due for a vote soon aim to block Internet piracy of cultural goods such as movies. The legislation serves the interests of the entertainment industry, which loses income in the theft of copyrighted material.

But the bills have ignited a Web-wide protest by Google, Wikipedia, and others that fear the effect of weeding out stolen content on their sites.

In China, the Communist Party has tightened its control over the Web even further in hopes of heading off a Chinese Arab Spring. It now requires microbloggers to register their names.

While actions in both countries differ in their motives and goals, they raise a common issue: Can a nation spur innovation and stay competitive if it stifles freedom on the Internet?

The antipiracy bills in the US simply aim to enforce existing laws protecting intellectual property. Such laws attempt to encourage inventors, artists, and others by promising a monopoly in the selling of their ideas. The “patent system ... added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius,” said Abraham Lincoln, the only US president to be awarded a patent.

Many Internet experts, however, argue for less legal protection of new ideas. They point to the fashion industry, which flourishes despite few curbs on knockoffs. Creative genius will happen more often in a freer environment, not necessarily because of the profit motive, they argue. “Curiosity has its own reason for existing,” said Albert Einstein.

In its curtailing of the Internet, China puts at risk its drive for home-grown innovation. The economic giant has risen due in large part to its imitation of industrial inventions from the West and Japan.

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