Eight US lawmakers have withdrawn their support for proposed anti-piracy laws after blackout protests by an estimated 7,000 websites, including Wikipedia, Google and WordPress.
The proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) have been criticised by supporters of a free internet because they aim to make internet companies accountable for hosting and linking to websites offering illicit downloads of film, TV and music.
In their current form, the bills would give content owners and the US government the power to request court orders to shut down sites associated with piracy, advertisers, payment processors and internet service providers would be blocked from doing business with infringers based overseas. In addition, SOPA requires search engines to remove foreign infringing sites from their results.
The list of senators no longer backing PIPA includes Republican senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland, according to the BBC.
In the House of Representatives, Republicans Ben Quayle of Arizona, Lee Terry of Nebraska and Dennis Ross of Florida said they were no longer supporting SOPA, joining Pennsylvania Democrat Tim Holden.
Ross tweeted that he was no longer supporting SOPA because as "a true free marketer, I want IP protected correctly". In a Facebook posting, Rubio said he and fellow Senators "heard legitimate concerns about the impact the bill could have on access to the internet". Mr Hatch said PIPA was "not ready for prime-time" and said he would remove himself from the bill's list of sponsors.
According to Google, there are better ways to address piracy than to ask US companies to censor the internet. “The foreign rogue sites are in it for the money, and we believe the best way to shut them down is to cut off their sources of funding,” the company said in a blog post.
The US House of Representatives plans to resume work on SOPA in February, and the US Senate is expected to vote on 24 January on how to proceed on PIPA.
But even if Congress approves the bills, President Barack Obama may decide to veto them. At the weekend, the Barack administration issued a statement saying it would not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet.
The White House statement prompted a series of five tweets by News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch in which he accused the Obama administration of siding with 'Silicon Valley paymasters'.
Murdoch, whose 20th Century Fox is calling for a clampdown on online piracy, accused President Obama of throwing in his lot with “Silicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery."
But commentators have pointed out that while the Obama administration is opposed to the more controversial aspects of PIPA and SOPA, the White House statement at the weekend also said that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response.
Instead of PIPA and SOPA, President Obama may choose to support alternative legislation formally introduced by 25 US state representatives to coincide with protests against the controversial bills.
Democrat Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon introduced a Senate version of the alternative Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade (OPEN) Act in December.
OPEN would allow copyright holders to refer complaints about copyright infringement at foreign websites to the US International Trade Commission (ITC) for investigation. "OPEN is a targeted, effective solution to the problem of foreign, rogue Web sites stealing from American artists and innovators," said Republican representative Darryll Issa for California in a statement.
"Today's Internet blackout has underscored the flawed approach taken by SOPA and PIPA to the real problem of intellectual property infringement. OPEN is a smarter way to protect taxpayers' rights while protecting the Internet,” he said.
But OPEN is not without its critics who say it is also not an effective tool for combating online intellectual property theft and amounts to a safe harbour for foreign criminals who steal US technology, products and intellectual property.