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Citizens take stand against censorship

What do the Sabres have to do with the Wikipedia blackout?

More than you might think.

With Time Warner Cable and MSG locked in a feud over programming fees, cable customers have been finding other ways to catch the game. Some have planted themselves at the local bar. Others have switched to DirecTV.

But there's another way people have caught up with the Sabres' latest struggles. They're tuning into pirated images streaming live over the Internet from sites that appear to be located in Russia.

Fans are finding a way.

This, precisely, is the problem for the likes of Time Warner and MSG.

The poaching of copyrighted material isn't some esoteric misdeed participated in only by hackers and tech geeks. The consumers of pirated content include plenty of everyday people looking for a freebie or a cheap movie or a way around a blackout.

That doesn't make it right, but it does make it a huge headache for companies that have built their business models around being able to control the dissemination of copyrighted movies, sports games and television shows.

Companies like Time Warner face a threat to their bottom lines, and it's not difficult to understand why they'd throw support behind legislation aimed at making it tougher for overseas companies to rip off their goods.

What's not so easy to justify is the solution that wound its way through Congress and almost made it to a vote. The twin bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act, incited an Internet protest last week by companies concerned about the proposed laws.

The idea is this: Stop foreign websites that serve up pirated materials by cutting off ad revenue, stopping customer payments, clearing them from search engines and breaking their web addresses.

The problems, however, are many, including the fact that plenty of people are skeptical the approach would even work and that it would place a potentially unmanageable burden on legitimate websites and search engines that let users post content.

What got the average American whipped into a frenzy was the idea that a court order could block access to entire foreign websites -- not just the copyright-infringing material.

That sounds like censorship to an awful lot of people.

Enter Wikipedia and thousands of other websites that jolted Americans on Wednesday when they pulled their services or blacked out their logos to draw attention to the bills.

The amazing thing was the response. It's not every day that millions of people take an interest in the work Congress is doing. The Twitterverse exploded with references to "SOPA" and "PIPA." By Friday, the bills were on ice.

The delay will give those involved a chance to revamp these proposals and come up with a better solution.

Predictably, there were cries of foul from those who supported the bills -- the very same groups that poured dollars into lobbying campaigns to move them through Congress.

This time, however, it wasn't lobbying money that got the attention of lawmakers. It was good old-fashioned free speech. It just happened to be amplified by newfangled technology.