A highly controversial bill that could radically alter the Internet as we know it is being debated in Washington Friday. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is being thrashed out in the House Judiciary Committee amid fierce opposition from tech firms and civil liberties groups.

The drawn-out and contentious hearing, which started Thursday, is expected to continue today and the bill, with some amendments, could go to the vote early next year. SOPA, drafted primarily to address growing concerns from the music and film industries around online privacy, would have far-reaching powers to crackdown on websites that infringe on copyrights.

Proponents of the bill say it protects the intellectual property market and is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws especially against offshore “rogue” foreign websites. They also criticize leading Internet companies for allowing Web users to easily search and access pirated media.

DeDe Lea, an African American woman, who runs Global Government Affairs at Viacom, says something urgently needs to be done to crackdown on sites that promote illegal streaming and downloading of films and shows. “The issue of piracy is a significant problem for the entertainment industry,” she says. “Millions of people have illegal access to our movies and TV shows and these needs to be addressed.”

Lea adds “rogue foreign sites” illegally upload content such as movies to sites which often look “authentic” because they do a really good job of pretending to be legal. Consumers watch films for free and in some cases even pay for the service with their credit cards, she says.

Big media and entertainment companies, such as Viacom, Time Warner and Walt Disney, have spent millions lobbying Congress to pass SOPA and its Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act.

“It’s wrong to steal a 30 cent pack of gum and it’s a felony to steal a 30 thousand dollar car but if a 30 million dollar movie is pirated and put up on the internet people don’t blink an eye,” said Betsy Megel, Executive Director, Physical Production, Paramount (a subsidy of Viacom) in a recent anti-piracy online promotional video.

Critics, though, say the legislation is seriously flawed and amounts to censorship that would stifle Internet creativity and freedom online.

Fierce opposition comes from Internet engineers, Web companies and civil liberties and human rights groups. Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe has said SOPA violates the First Amendment and “should not be enacted by Congress.”

Internet giants, including Google, Twitter, YouTube, Yahoo, The Huffington Post, LinkedIn and Flickr, for example, this week voiced their concerns in an open letter that was published in major U.S newspapers. SOPA will “give the U.S. government the power to censor the Web using techniques similar to those used by China, Malaysia and Iran,” the letter says.

“The bill won’t just hurt lobbyists on Capitol Hill but up-and-coming African-American artists,” says Paul Porter, founder of Raprehab.com, an online website that supports independent music artists.

He says the music industry is dominated by a handful of powerful record companies and often the only way for artists to “get their message out” and raise their profile is on the Web. If musicians “sample copyrighted material” without clearance the danger is the host website will be forced to shut down, Porter says.

“They are taking power away from independent music artists, studio owners and virtual small businesses and putting it in the hands of a powerful few conglomerates,” Porter says. Rappers and hip-hop artists, for instance, are known for sampling music to create unorthodox sounds.

Illegal downloading of music and films, nevertheless, is on the rise. In many ways it has become socially acceptable to watch pirated material online. Consumers, including African-Americans who are heavy consumers of media and social network sites, feel almost entitled to free content or the ability to download.

Marie Knowles of D.C based SoundExchange, which is a non-profit performance rights organization that collects royalties on behalf of artists, says, nonetheless, artists need to protect their work. “We fight for royalties that recognize the role that artists and labels should get for the fair compensation of their work,” Knowles says.

However, Porter, who has worked in the music industry for 30 years including a stint at Black Entertainment Television (BET), says the bill goes too far and is unnecessarily draconian. “The way the bill is written they’ll be shutting down websites all over the place.”

Introduced by Texas congressman Lamar Smith, the bill will effectively allow both the US government and copyright holders to seek court orders against websites that display or are associated with intellectual property infringement and piracy.