As Wikipedia prepares to go dark in protest, prospects for SOPA and PIPA dim in Congress

Online pressure to rethink anti-piracy bills that threaten the Internet industries, security and online free speech continues to build, although, as the New York Times reported, many still expect these online piracy bills invite a protracted battle. There are, as it turns out, quite a few people willing to stand up to these bills.

More notable criticism of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives and the PROTECT IP Act in the U.S. Senate went online this weekend. Tim O’Reilly made his case for why SOPA and PIPA are bad industrial policy this weekend. The EFF explained how SOPA and PIPA violate White House principles supporting free speech. The MIT Media Lab came out against the bills with a lucid post by Joi Ito and Ethan Zuckerman explaining why they oppose SOPA and PIPA.

And, despite the paucity of coverage on the TV networks whose parent companies helped write the bills, a prominent blog post on SOPA and PIPA at Craiglist will continue to raise awareness online. The most intense day of online protest looks yet to come: On Wednesday, many websites will “blackout” to protest these bills, including Reddit. The biggest of these to date is Wikipedia’s SOPA initiative: co-founder Jimmy Wales shared on Twitter that Wikipedia will be “blacked out on Wednesday.

For those left wondering why such opposition persists after some sensational headlines this morning, prospects for the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House are significantly damaged but the legislation is not “dead.” Rather, the legislation is shelved until ‘consensus is reached.’ I believe that the writer at the Examiner sourced Rep. Darrell Issa’s statement from late Friday night when he wrote that Rep. Cantor made a ‘surprise statement.’ There’s no such statement in the House Majority Leader’s social media accounts or at GOPLeader.gov. As of this afternoon, requests for a statement to Rep. Cantor’s office have not been returned.

Here’s what actually was released: “Majority Leader Cantor has assured me that we will continue to work to address outstanding concerns and work to build consensus prior to any anti-piracy legislation coming before the House for a vote,” said Rep. Issa in a prepared statement released late Friday night.

Seasoned security scribe Bill Brenner is more reasonable in his caution at CSO Online and at his blog, where he writes that:

It appears SOPA is headed for the shelf due to the rising tide of opposition. Details on the site where I do my day job, CSOonline. I also wrote a post warning people that this isn’t over by a long shot.

Why is it important to be careful about declaring this legislation dead? Consider recent experience on another controversial bill. The White House indicated that they won’t accept a bill that damages freedom of expression or security this weekend. Remember, however, the statements of his administration regarding H.R. 1540, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). President Obama signed the military spending bill into law at the end of 2011. He added an important coda to it, however:

“My Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens,” wrote President Obama in a signing statement.

It’s the actions of presidential administrations in the future, given detention powers in the NDAA, that worry many observers, including the ACLU. Once such executive authority is granted, it will likely take years for the judicial system to provide a check or balance. And given that the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security has already been taking down websites for over a year, caution for this White House’s position here is warranted.

In one scenario, consider that a heavily amended version of SOPA and PIPA that do contain DNS provisions could make it through Congress, once “consensus is reached” in the House and a filibuster from Senator Wyden in the Senate is overcome.

In the absence of clearer guidance from the House Majority Leader’s office on what’s acceptable in the bill, it remains possible that a deal could still be made which legislative leaders then feel represents “consensus” — Rep. Smith has said he’ll pull the DNS provisions, for instance — and then SOPA could be brought to a vote. The President could add a signing statement and, well, you get the idea.

The Senate version’s of an anti-piracy bill (The PROTECT IP Act) is set for a potential vote next week. 14 Senators are currently publicly opposed to it. Without support from the House or the White House, of course, its prospects to become law in this Congress are damaged but not eliminated. Senator Leahy has indicated that he’d recommend study the impact of the DNS provisions after passage, not pull them entirely. Brad Plumer, who wrote that lawmakers are backing away from online piracy bills, offered this analysis:

Now, that doesn’t mean these bills, or their most controversial features, are dead and buried. Leahy, for one, was pretty clear that still supports passing a bill with DNS-blocking — he just thinks that feature should be studied carefully before it actually gets implemented. (As TechDirt’s Michael Masnick points out, that sounds like a compelling reason to slow down and reconsider before passing the bill, rather than enacting a provision that lawmakers don’t fully understand.)

UPDATE: On Tuesday, January 17th, Rep. Lamar Smith said that markup of SOPA would resume in February. So no, SOPA is not dead. Here’s the statement his office released:

Chairman Smith: “To enact legislation that protects consumers, businesses and jobs from foreign thieves who steal America’s intellectual property, we will continue to bring together industry representatives and Members to find ways to combat online piracy.

“Due to the Republican and Democratic retreats taking place over the next two weeks, markup of the Stop Online Piracy Act is expected to resume in February.

“I am committed to continuing to work with my colleagues in the House and Senate to send a bipartisan bill to the White House that saves American jobs and protects intellectual property.”

One of the most powerful politicians in the U.S House has publicly voiced his opposition to the bill, consistent with past opposition to regulatory burdens created in Washington. “The internet is one of the most magnificent expressions of freedom and free enterprise in history,” said Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), in a statement opposing SOPA. “It should stay that way. While H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act, attempts to address a legitimate problem, I believe it creates the precedent and possibility for undue regulation, censorship and legal abuse.”

He’s right. These bills would upend the predictable legal environment created by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, subjecting online innovators to a new era of uncertainty and risk. Legal experts from the top law schools in the country warn that they would damage free speech. Human rights experts warn that they would would force pervasive scrutiny and surveillance of Internet users’ online activities. Venture capitalists warn would chill the growth of social media and conscript every online platform into a new role as content police. The government’s own cybersecurity experts, at Sandia Labs, warn that these bills would damage DNSSEC, harming national security at a time when American government, businesses and consumers face attacks on their networks and computers every day. The founders of the Internet and World Wide Web warn that would lay the groundwork for an increasingly balkanized Internet, directly undercutting U.S. foreign policy advocacy in support of a single, global, open network.

If you’re curious about where your elected officials in Washington stand, learn whether your U.S. Representative or Senators support SOPA or PIPA using SOPAOpera.org, a Web application made by ProPublica using public data. (A full database is available at ProPublica.org, along with the methodology behind it.)

While Wikipedia and other sites blacking out at this scale is an an unprecedented action, what happens offline is still critical. That’s where laws are still made, after all. While new means of collective action enabled by the Internet are increasingly important, particularly with respect to generating coverage of these bills by the broadcast media, the voices that Representatives and Senators listen to most are those of their constituents. If these bills are important to you, the most effective action that any concerned citizen that wants to talk to Congress can take remains to go see your Senator or Congressman in person, call them or write them a letter.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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