It’s been a rough few days to be an ill-conceived “anti-piracy” bill. Both the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA, H.R. 3261) in the House and its Senate cousin, the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act [yup, really] (PROTECT-IP Act/PIPA, S. 968), have taken intense flak over the past week, including some friendly fire from their respective sponsors. Let’s review.
Last week saw a flurry of grassroots web activism as opponents of the bills successfully pushed sites like GoDaddy and Craigslist to publicly declare their opposition. This effort culminated in vows from reddit, Imgur and the inane-but-powerful Cheezburger network, which includes I Can Has Cheezburger? and FAIL Blog, to blackout their sites this Wednesday, January 18 (reddit and Imgur will be down for twelve hours--8 AM to 8 PM (EST)--but no word on just how long a Lolcats fast we’re in for).
Next came Wikipedia‘s commitment to a full twenty-four hours of darkness, also slated for this Wednesday.
Calls for Google and Facebook to follow suit don’t seem likely to bear any fruit. But the scale at which these sites are poised to unleash a horde of meme-and-essay-fodder-deprived constituents is unprecedented.
So much clamoring both by the very people who developed the Internet (yeah, Gore opposes it, too) and by the masses of freaked out pedestrian surfers seems to have struck a critical chord for policymakers. Last Thursday, PIPA sponsor Patrick Leahy (D-VT) announced his intent to introduce an amendment to PIPA that would require a study of the bill’s impact on Internet service providers (ISPs). Leahy acknowledged that the issues raised by bill opponents such as Google, Twitter, Mozilla et al are “highly technical” and merit further study. The next day, six GOP senators (one of whom had previously co-sponsored PIPA) issued a letter requesting that the scheduled PIPA vote on January 24 be postponed.
The letter to Majority Leader Reid cited backlash from “a large number of constituents and stakeholders” concerned about “possible 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 senators also emphasized that “hearing from the Administration and relevant agencies is imperative” in light of PIPA’s “potential cybersecurity implications.” Ask and ye shall receive: on Saturday, the White House responded to two online petitions aimed at SOPA and PIPA. The post, written by three intellectual property and cybersecurity aides, articulated the Administration’s position: while “online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.” In kind, the President seeks legislation that is “narrowly targeted” and “effectively tailored, with strong due process,” characteristics few have ascribed to either SOPA or PIPA. The Administration considers that proposed legislation poses “a real risk to cybersecurity and yet leave[s] contraband goods and services accessible online.” In short, Obama isn’t impressed with anything currently on the anti-piracy drawing board, either. While avowing to continue to seek means of rooting out “rogue” foreign websites, it could not be clearer that neither chamber’s draft would be welcome on the President’s desk without serious revamping.
Then yesterday we get word that SOPA has been shelved, at least for now. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, announced that he was canceling Wednesday’s SOPA hearing (which was the impetus behind the planned website blackouts that same day). Issa, who has long opposed SOPA, issued a statement announcing that “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 suggested that he had received Majority Leader Cantor’s word that “anti-piracy legislation will not move to the House floor this Congress without a consensus.”
Now, despite these strong moves against the bills, no coffins have been nailed shut — SOPA is not dead, but shelved pending “consensus.” Indeed, the bill’s sponsor, Lamar Smith (R-TX), who is also Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, issued a statement Tuesday suggesting that SOPA markup would continue in February. Furthermore, the Senate is still slated to begin debate on PIPA on January 24.
Indeed, there are those calling these moves to ostensively curb or delay either bill as “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?)
As such, reddit, Wikipedia and friends plan to continue with the proposed blackouts and protests to make sure people get the message that these measures truly need to get put to bed.