Less than a month ago, Congress could not have cared less that provisions in SOPA or PIPA might damage the Internet and cybersecurity, or allow corporations wide latitude to shut down sites. But now erstwhile supporters are swarming the exits.
The past two weeks have seen unprecedented activism around twin anti-piracy bills: SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act H.R. 3261) in the House and its Senate cousin, PROTECT-IP Act/PIPA (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act [really], S. 968). Less than a month ago, Congress could not have cared less that provisions in both bills might damage the Internet infrastructure, negatively affect cybersecurity or allow corporations wide latitude to shut down sites with little due process.
But now previous supporters have fled for the exits.
The big Internet pushback against SOPA and PIPA began with demands for websites to publicly declare their opposition to the bills. Taking a page out of the “move your money” campaign against Bank of America’s a couple months back, customers of sites like GoDaddy (which had initially supported SOPA) defected en masse, to the point that GoDaddy officially changed its tune. Similar efforts culminated in vows from reddit, Imgur and the inane-but-powerful Cheezburger network to blackout their sites in protest on Wednesday, January 18 for twelve hours. Next came Wikipedia‘s commitment to a full twenty-four hours of darkness on the same day. The scale at which these sites (and thousands of others) coordinated against SOPA and PIPA, largely as a result of user demands, is unprecedented in Internet history.
Even before Blackout Day, so much clamoring seemed to have struck a critical chord. Lead PIPA sponsor Patrick Leahy (D-VT) announced an amendment to PIPA that would require a study of the bill’s impact on Internet service providers (ISPs). The next day, six GOP senators (one of whom had previously co-sponsored PIPA) issued a letter requesting that a scheduled PIPA vote on January 24 be postponed.
They cited backlash from constituents concerned about “unintended consequences of the legislation, including breaches in cybersecurity, damaging the integrity of the Internet, costly and burdensome litigation, and dilution of First Amendment rights.”
The next day, the White House responded to online petitions aimed at SOPA and PIPA. The statement articulated that the President seeks legislation that is “narrowly targeted” and “effectively tailored, with strong due process,” characteristics few ascribed to either SOPA or PIPA. While vowing to continue the effort to root out “rogue” foreign websites, the President could not have made it clearer that neither draft would be welcome on his desk as-is.
The Monday before the Internet went dark, we got word that SOPA had been temporarily shelved. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, announced that he was canceling the January 18 SOPA hearing (which was the impetus behind the planned website blackouts that same day). Issa, long opposed to SOPA, issued a statement announcing,
“The voice of the Internet community has been heard. Much more education for Members of Congress about the workings of the Internet is essential if anti-piracy legislation is to be workable and achieve broad appeal.”
He also suggested that “anti-piracy legislation will not move to the House floor this Congress without a consensus.” Meanwhile, the bill’s sponsor, Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, issued a statement indicating that SOPA markup would continue in February. In the Senate, debate and a possible vote on PIPA was still slated to for January 24. As such, reddit, Wikipedia and friends continued with their planned blackouts and protests.
And a mighty Blackout Day it was: Google’s homepage petition garnered some 4.5 million signatures, and many congressional websites unwittingly joined the ranks of blacked-out sites after being overwhelmed with traffic. All of this caught the attention of our esteemed congresspeople, to the tune of NINETEEN senators defecting from support of PIPA, including seven former co-sponsors of the bill. Support for SOPA suffered a similar fate, with previous suporters swapping allegiance in droves.
Massachusetts representatives likewise took notice. Senator Brown stated definitively that he would vote against PIPA, elaborating, “The Internet is too important to our economy.” Brown had not previously taken a position.
Senate candidate and Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren also publicly aired her qualms with the bills for the first time, suggesting that Congress must “deal with piracy without chilling the innovation, diversity and free exchange of ideas that define the Internet.”
Meanwhile, radio silence from Senator Kerry…
Two days after the blackouts, Senate Majority Leader Reid announced he was postponing the January 24 PIPA vote “in light of recent events,” citing the need to “forge a balance between protecting Americans’ intellectual property, and maintaining openness and innovation on the internet.” Representative Lamar Smith announced the same day that he was pulling SOPA ”until there is wider agreement on a solution.”
No one is ready to call these bills dead, though — note that these are postponements pending “wider agreement.”
Indeed, there are those calling moves to ostensively curb or delay either bill “an old sales tactic. You make a ludicrous offer on something (SOPA), then retract it and make a new, slightly less crazy one (PIPA, or a reshaped SOPA) that suddenly feels sane by comparison, and the other party accepts.” (Remember NDAA?)
Having tentatively won this first round, though, we can only hope that the Internet remains vigilant against similar legislation in the future.