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Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of websites today went black or blacked out portions of their presentations to protest a proposed federal law that, according to a legal analysis, would let Uncle Sam hack into the Web like a criminal.

The targets of the protests, joined by major names such as Google and Craigslist, are the Stop Online Piracy Act in the U.S. House and the Protect IP Act in the U.S. Senate.

Nathan Oleson, a senior staff attorney with the United States Justice Foundation, contends that while the legislation aims to enable government to crack down on digital “piracy”of Web content, it actually would turn Washington into just another hacker.

The analysis by the USJF, which works on rights and liberties disputes, addresses  H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act and
S. 968, the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act” in the Senate.

Publishers Weekly noted, “You may notice your Internet experience is a little different today. Thousands of web sites …. are protesting against the proposed legislation with a 24-hour blackout.”

About 7,000 sites were expected to participate in the protest, including the giant Wikipedia.

“The chorus of opposition from human rights advocates, constitutional scholars and the tech community, and the front page coverage of today’s Internet blackout, demonstrates deep opposition to the bill, which critics say would curb free speech, foster censorship, and create ‘virtual blacklists,’” the report said.

TechWorld noted that over the weekend three members of Barack Obama’s administration said they were opposed to the proposed law, but Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales warned the rumors of the demise of the threat could be premature.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, did issue a statement today that he was withdrawing his support.

“Our Founding Fathers understood that protecting people’s ideas is essential to a robust and healthy democracy. With the advent of the Internet, intellectual property theft is a real and growing problem that everyone acknowledges must be combated,” he said.

But he noted that the current proposal “is simply not ready for prime time.”

He said more work needs to be done to “find a better path forward. … Rushing something with such potential for far-reaching consequences is something I cannot support and that’s why I will not only vote against moving the bill forward next week but also remove my cosponsorship of the bill.”

The reality of the idea, according to Oleson’s analysis, is that the legislation would “cause irreparable harm to the structural integrity of the Internet, circumvent anti-hacking protections already in place, and are unlikely to accomplish the stated goals.”

“Online crime is often accomplished by hackers who … violate Internet protocols to steal private information from users,” he wrote. To fight that, the Domain Name System Security Extensions allows browsers to verify that a site is legitimate.

“A key provision of both PROTECT IP Act and SOPA permits the U.S. attorney general to obtain a court order that requires Internet providers, of all kinds, to direct users away from websites that are ‘dedicated to infringing activities.’ To put the enforcement provisions of these acts into perspective, the attorney general will, by court order, be able to force Internet providers to block access to ‘violating’ websites by interfering with Internet protocols in the exact same way that hackers commit Internet crimes.”

He continued, “Internet browsers and other applications are designed to protect users against hackers, but they will not be able to differentiate between actual hackers and a U.S. attorney general blocking order. The normal operation of Internet browsers and other applications will circumvent or bypass the U.S. attorney general, thus giving the attorney general the power to bring legal action against the producers of browser products unless the security features now in place are removed. This blocking will also prevent the proper workings of the Internet, as the court ordered blocks against access to certain Internet servers will necessitate the blocking [of] numerous foreign databases containing a substantial number of other websites which, although not ordered blocked by a court, could no longer be accessed through a blocked server.”

He said, “These acts, under the guise of combating Internet crime, will, instead, effectively restrict American citizens from full usage of the Internet and, as pointed out in a December, 2011, law review article, ‘It would be not just ironic, but tragic, were the United States to join the ranks of these repressive and restrictive regimes, erecting our own ‘virtual walls’ to prevent people from accessing portions of the world’s networks.’”

The analysis also warned that the congressional procedures would allow the government to seize property, the websites, “after an ex parte hearing, with only one side presenting evidence of a supposed violation, without the owner of the website even being given notice that the owner’s property interest is at stake.

“That is a clear violation of the Due Process Clause protections guaranteed by the United States Constitution, which states ‘No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.’”

And it won’t accomplish its goal, either, he wrote, because foreign sites “will continue to enjoy access to allegedly pirated materials.”

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