Protests, like this one in New York, and over the internet, forced the withdrawal of planned legislation aimed at shutting down sites that share pirated movies and other content.

wASHINGTON - Outspent but hardly outgunned, online and hi-tech companies triggered an avalanche of internet clicks to force Congress to shelve legislation that would curb online piracy.

They outmanoeuvred the entertainment industry and other old-guard business interests, leaving them bitter and befuddled.

Before Senate and House of Representatives leaders set aside the legislation on Friday, the movie and music lobbies and other Washington fixtures, including the US Chamber of Commerce, had put in play their usually reliable tactics to rally support for the bills.

There were e-mail campaigns, television and print ads in important states, a Times Square billboard, and uncounted phone calls and visits to congressional offices in Washington and around the country. That included about 20 trips to the Capitol by leaders of the National Songwriters Association International, often accompanied by songwriters who performed their hits for lawmakers and their staffs.

Such campaigns are often music to the ears of lawmakers. This time, however, it was smothered by an online outpouring against the legislation that culminated on Wednesday.

According to organisers, at least 75 000 websites temporarily went dark that day, including the English-language online encyclopedia Wikipedia, joined by 25 000 blogs.

“The US Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open internet,” said a message on Wikipedia’s home page, which was shrouded in shadows and provided links to help visitors reach their members of Congress.

Thousands of other sites posted messages protesting the bills and urging people to contact lawmakers. Protest leaders say that action resulted in three million e-mails.

Google, its logo hidden beneath a stark black rectangle, solicited seven million signatures on a petition opposing the bills. Craigslist counted 30 000 phone calls to lawmakers and there were 3.9 million tweets on Twitter about the bills, according to NetCoalition, which represents leading internet and hi-tech companies.

Google spokeswoman Samantha Smith said it “had such an overwhelming res-ponse to our petition that it … far exceeded our expectations”.

Just weeks ago, the bills seemed headed toward quiet approval with bipartisan backing that ranged from liberals to conservatives.

The turnabout was so unexpected that some think the online world’s triumph signals a pivotal moment marking its arrival as Washington’s newest power broker.

“This does serve as a watershed moment,” said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a communications professor at the State University of New York at Albany who studies how political groups use high technology.

“Certain channels for communication that people routinely use have the power to get their users to become political activists on their behalf.”

The bills are aimed at thwarting illegal downloads and sales of thousands of US movies, songs and books, as well as counterfeit pharmaceuticals, software and other copyrighted products. They would do so by making it easier to stop US websites and search engines from steering visitors to largely foreign websites that pirate the items.

Supporters estimate that online piracy costs the US at least $100 billion annually and thousands of jobs. Even the bills’ critics say sales of pirated products must be stopped.

But foes say the legislation goes too far, threatening to curb internet free speech, stifle online innovation and burden online businesses with damaging regulations.

“People love their internet. They use it every day, they don’t want it to change and they don’t want Washington messing with it,” said Maura Corbett, spokeswoman for the NetCoalition. – Sapa-AP