Lawmakers begin to retreat from piracy bills in face of Web blackout
In an unprecedented display of political muscle, thousands of websites went dark on Wednesday to protest two Internet piracy bills, the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s Protect IP Act.
Google, the most visited site in the world, plastered a black box evoking censorship over its logo. Users who click on the box are re-directed to a petition urging Congress to drop the piracy legislation. The Google page claims the bills would “censor the Web and impose harmful regulations on American businesses.”
Wikipedia, the world’s sixth most popular site according to the Web firm Alexa, went a step further, shutting down its English-language site entirely. Visitors to Wikipedia are greeted with a minimalistic, dark page with the headline: “Imagine a world without free knowledge.”
The Wikipedia page includes a box for users to type in their zip code and contact their representatives. The site warns that that the legislation “could fatally damage the free and open Internet.”
The coordinated protests are aimed at bringing down legislation that would empower the Justice Department and copyright holders to demand that search engines delete links to sites deemed to be “dedicated” to copyright infringement. Ad networks and payment processors would be prohibited from doing business with the sites.
The backlash seems to be slowing the momentum for both piracy bills on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a rising star in the Republican Party, on Wednesday dropped his support for the Senate version of the piracy bill and said lawmakers should take the time to craft new legislation that addresses the concerns “raised by all sides.”
“I have been a co-sponsor of the PROTECT IP Act because I believe it’s important to protect American ingenuity, ideas and jobs from being stolen through Internet piracy, much of it occurring overseas through rogue websites in China,” Rubio said in a post on Facebook. “As a senator from Florida, a state with a large presence of artists, creators and businesses connected to the creation of intellectual property, I have a strong interest in stopping online piracy that costs Florida jobs.
“However, we must do this while simultaneously promoting an open, dynamic Internet environment that is ripe for innovation and promotes new technologies.”
Sen Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), another conservative heavyweight, also announced his opposition to the legislation.
“I support intellectual property rights, but I oppose SOPA & PIPA,” DeMint wrote in a tweet. “They’re misguided bills that will cause more harm than good.”
Six GOP senators sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week, urging him to postpone a vote on the legislation.
“We have increasingly heard from a large number of constituents and other stakeholders with vocal concerns about possible unintended consequences of the proposed legislation, including breaches in cybersecurity, damaging the integrity of the Internet, costly and burdensome litigation, and dilution of First Amendment rights,” Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said in the letter.
Grassley and Hatch had previously signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation.
But Reid has rejected the calls for delay and promises to bring the measure to a vote on Tuesday.
The protests seemed to piquing the interest of Web users Wednesday. By mid-morning, “SOPA” and “SOPA blackout” were among the top ten trending search terms on Google.
Google and Wikipedia weren’t the only big-name sites slamming the bills. The popular discussion board reddit went dark at 8:00 a.m., posting a message that said: “SOPA and PIPA damage the Internet. Today we fight back.”
Wired, a technology magazine, also joined in, blacking out the headlines on its website.
Facebook did not shutdown, but the social network’s Washington, D.C., office posted a page calling the bills “not the right solution” because of the “collateral damage they would cause to the Internet.”
Other sites participating in the protest include Craigslist, Mozilla, Imgur, Raw Story, MoveOn.org, Cheezburger and the Consumer Electronics Association.
The bills’ sponsors dismissed the protests Tuesday.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) called Wikipedia’s protest a “publicity stunt” that promotes “fear instead of facts.”
“Perhaps during the blackout, Internet users can look elsewhere for an accurate definition of online piracy,” he said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chief author of the Senate bill, said the protest is based on a misunderstanding of the legislation.
“The PROTECT IP Act will not affect Wikipedia, will not affect reddit, and will not affect any website that has any legitimate use,” he said.
“Perhaps if these companies would participate constructively, they could point to what in the actual legislation they contend threatens their websites, and then we could dispel their misunderstandings. That is what debate on legislation is intended to do, to fine-tune the bill to confront the problem of stealing while protecting against unintended consequences.”
Movie studios, record labels and business groups say piracy legislation is needed to stop the illegal downloading of movies, music and other copyrighted content, and argue that legislative action is long overdue.
But consumer groups and Web companies warn the bills would stifle innovation and censor free speech. They say the legislation would impose an unreasonable burden on websites to police user-generated content and could lead to legitimate websites getting shut down.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), one of the leading supporters of piracy legislation, called the protests an “abuse of power” aimed at turning Web users into “corporate pawns.”
“A so-called ‘blackout’ is yet another gimmick, albeit a dangerous one, designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals,” MPAA chairman and former Sen. Chris Dodd said in a statement. “It is our hope that the White House and the Congress will call on those who intend to stage this ‘blackout’ to stop the hyperbole and PR stunts and engage in meaningful efforts to combat piracy.”
The Senate is set to vote on the legislation on Tuesday. Smith has said he will push ahead with the House’s version in the Judiciary Committee next month.