An assembly of U.S. Internet elites, captains of the most successful online businesses, published an open letter to Congress on Wednesday urging lawmakers to think long and hard before adopting bills that would force wide-reaching changes to the structure of the Web.

The letter, which will run as an advertisement in the pages of America's most influential newspapers, comes just one day before a key House committee vote on a revised version of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Most critics say the bill would create an Internet "blacklist" that forces ISPs, search engines, financial firms and advertisers to de-list websites accused of copyright infringement, all without any actual court hearing or oversight -- which is bad enough, but the letter's authors took their criticism to another level entirely.

In their attack on SOPA and the Senate version of the bill, known as the PROTECT IP Act, the tech leaders claimed the proposals would put U.S. tech policy on par with "China, Malaysia and Iran."

"We urge Congress to think hard before changing the regulation that underpins the Internet," they wrote. "Let's not deny the next generation of entrepreneurs and founders the same opportunities that we all had."

The letter is signed by Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google; David Filo, co-founder of Yahoo!; Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal; Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist; Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter; Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post; and Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia -- among many others.

Their criticisms aren't dissimilar from those leveled by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who said earlier this week that the bills would essentially "criminalize linking and the fundamental structure of the Internet itself." He said the bill's goal is "reasonable," but added that "their mechanism is terrible."

"What they're essentially doing is whacking away at the DNS system and that's a mistake," Schmidt explained. "It's a bad way to go about solving the problem."

That's pretty much what China does when censoring websites it deems inappropriate. Through an imposed regime of corporate self-censorship, when China asks a company to block a website, it happens. The same proposal, although aimed at piracy instead of speech, is reflected in SOPA and PROTECT IP. But it's not just censorship of free speech that lawmakers should look out for: cracking down on piracy can be an invitation to tyranny as well.

In Russia, for example, authorities have made a habit of claiming copyright infringement when cracking down on social justice groups. That caused software giant Microsoft to issue blanket software licenses to non-governmental groups and media organizations in Russia, after officials began making arrests last year based on allegedly pirated software.

That too is mirrored in SOPA and PROTECT IP: by obtaining copyrights on their internal documents, big corporations could shut down online whistleblowers with a simple complaint of infringement, forever silencing sometimes vital information. That same action would also cut off finances to sites like WikiLeaks, through a banking and advertising blockade required by law.

The legislation is so broad it could even be used to target online anonymity tools frequented by human rights activists, according to technology advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The software Tor, for instance, which has been used to protect activists in Tunisia and Egypt, could be targeted because it can be used to hide one’s IP address when illegally downloading copyrighted content.

Text of the open letter to Congress follows.


An Open Letter to Washington

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.

However we're worried that the PROTECT IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act--which started out as well-meaning efforts to control piracy online--will undermine that framework.

These two pieces of legislation threaten to:

* Require web services, like the ones we helped found, to monitor what users link to, or upload. This would have a chilling effect on innovation;

* Deny website owners the right to due process of law;

* Give the U.S. Government the power to censor the web using techniques similar to those used by China, Malaysia and Iran; and

* Undermine security online by changing the basic structure of the Internet.

We urge Congress to think hard before changing the regulation that underpins the Internet. Let's not deny the next generation of entrepreneurs and founders the same opportunities that we all had.

Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and Andreessen Horowitz

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google

Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and Square

Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr and Hunch

David Filo, co-founder of Yahoo!

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn

Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post

Chad Hurley, co-founder of YouTube

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive and co-founder of Alexa Internet

Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal

Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist

Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay

Biz Stone, co-founder of Obvious and Twitter

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation

Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger and Twitter

Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo!

(H/T: CNet)

Photo: Flickr user Richard.Fisher.