Rep. Smith pulls DNS provision from SOPA, Rep Issa postpones hearing, White House responds to epetition

The Friday night news dump lives on: at 12:30 AM last night, I received an email from the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform: according to the release, Rep. Lamar Smith said he will remove the domain name provision from the Stop Online Piracy Act. Rep. Darrell Issa says he’ll suspend next week’s hearing with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian & other Internet experts. As you may have heard, the United States Congress is considering anti-piracy bills that could cripple Internet industries that are engine of the dynamic economic growth all around the world: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives and the PROTECT IP Act in the U.S. Senate.

Here’s the release:

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa today announced that a hearing scheduled for Wednesday, which was to examine the impact of Domain Name Service (DNS) and search engine blocking on the Internet, has been postponed following assurances that anti-piracy legislation will not move to the House floor this Congress without a consensus.

“While I remain concerned about Senate action on the Protect IP Act, I am confident that flawed legislation will not be taken up by this House. 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 Chairman Issa. “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.”

“Earlier tonight, Chairman Smith announced that he will remove the DNS blocking provision from his legislation. Although SOPA, despite the removal of this provision, is still a fundamentally flawed bill, I have decided that postponing the scheduled hearing on DNS blocking with technical experts is the best course of action at this time. Right now, the focus of protecting the Internet needs to be on the Senate where Majority Leader Reid has announced his intention to try to move similar legislation in less than two weeks.”
http://www.keepthewebopen.com

This isn’t the end of the news, however: on the same night, this morning, the White House responded to the “We The People” epetition asking the President to veto the Stop Online Piracy Act & PROTECT IP Act. Cybersecurity coordinator Howard Schmidt, US CTO Aneesh Chopra and OMB intellectual property enforcement coordinator Victoria Espinel wrote it. While they don’t address the veto requested in the epetition, the White House did come out strongly against the DNS provisions in the bills.

Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small. Across the globe, the openness of the Internet is increasingly central to innovation in business, government, and society and it must be protected. To minimize this risk, new legislation must be narrowly targeted only at sites beyond the reach of current U.S. law, cover activity clearly prohibited under existing U.S. laws, and be effectively tailored, with strong due process and focused on criminal activity. Any provision covering Internet intermediaries such as online advertising networks, payment processors, or search engines must be transparent and designed to prevent overly broad private rights of action that could encourage unjustified litigation that could discourage startup businesses and innovative firms from growing.

We must avoid creating new cybersecurity risks or disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet. Proposed laws must not tamper with the technical architecture of the Internet through manipulation of the Domain Name System (DNS), a foundation of Internet security. Our analysis of the DNS filtering provisions in some proposed legislation suggests that they pose a real risk to cybersecurity and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online. We must avoid legislation that drives users to dangerous, unreliable DNS servers and puts next-generation security policies, such as the deployment of DNSSEC, at risk.

Taken in context with Senator Leahy’s statement on reconsidering DNS (albeit not removing it from the bill) and Rep. Lamar Smith saying he’ll remove a DNS provision from SOPA, one of the major concerns that the tech community appears to have been heard and validated. Read my past coverage of SOPA and PIPA at Radar for these concerns, including links to the bills and a white paper from Internet engineers.

The White House, however, did write that “existing tools are not strong enough” and that they want legislation to move forward. That could well be the OPEN Act supported by Senator Ron Wyden and Rep. Darrell Issa.

The MPAA has also weighed in on the Congressional moves. (PDF. Michael O’Leary, senior executive VP for global policy and external affairs for the MPAA:

“We fully support Chairman Smith in his efforts to protect U.S. workers, businesses and consumers
against online theft. We believe his announcement today regarding the Stop Online Piracy Act and
Senator Leahy’s earlier announcement regarding the PROTECT IP Act will help forge an even
broader consensus for legislative action, and we look forward to working with them and other
interested parties in passing strong legislation utilizing the remaining tools at our disposal to protect
American jobs and creativity. We continue to believe that DNS filtering is an important tool, already
used in numerous countries internationally to protect consumers and the intellectual property of
businesses with targeted filters for rogue sites. We are confident that any close examination of DNS
screening will demonstrate that contrary to the claims of some critics, it will not break the Internet.”

Gary Price, who forwarded the MPAA response, also notes that “on Thursday, the Library of Congress named a new Director of Communications. She starts at the end of this month. She was key in the founding of the Pro-SOPA Copyright Alliance and
also worked for the MPAA.

We’ll be seeing reactions to this all weekend. I’ll link to the best of them tomorrow from this story. For now, a couple of things seems clear:

1) The technical concerns of the Internet community appear to have been heard. It’s also likely that the federal government’s own cybersecurity experts, including Sandia Labs and Schmidt himself, influenced Congressional actions here. Senator Leahy, however, has not committed to remove DNS provisions entirely from PIPA, only to research them upon passage. That’s likely to be unsatisfactory to many concerned with the bills. “Trust us” to study it after passage is a tough sell.

2) The White House is supporting the arguments that online piracy is a a “real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers.” That statement should have been supported with more evidence from the government’s research institutions.

3) The response from the White House has to be considered an open government win, with respect to an epetition resulting in a statement from the top IT officials in the country. That said, posting it on a Friday night Saturday morning, as opposed to a response from the President during his Friday news conference, buried* diminished the impact of the news and muted its political impact.

4) Most American citizens oppose government involvement in blocking access to content online, particularly when the word “censor” is accurately applied. When asked if ISPs, social media sites and search engines should block access — as they would under SOPA — only a third of Americans agree.

The White House stated that “we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”

It will be up to the American people to hold them accountable for the commitment.

Update: Here’s Erik Cain, writing at Forbes on the White House response on SOPA:

This pretty clearly pits the Obama Administration against SOPA/PIPA. It also calls for more open and honest discussion about these bills and the problems they seek to address. Since there has been almost no discussion or debate until very recently on the legislation in question, this is a very welcome development.

I admit that while I’m pretty glad to see the administration come out with this sort of in-depth statement on the matter, I have a hard time trusting the president on these issues. His veto pen notably did not come out to quash the NDAA – a bill he vowed at one point to not let past his desk.

Then again, internet regulations may have wide, bipartisan support but still nowhere near the support that a defense funding bill has. Obama may have seen a political fight he couldn’t win, read the writing on the wall, and backed off of the NDAA rather than suffer a blow right before an election. The same does not apply to SOPA/PIPA.

So an executive veto on these bills seems much more likely, though at this point – with various congressmen starting to speak out, lots of companies threatening blackouts of their websites – including Wikipedia and Reddit – we may see the momentum behind these bills grind to a halt. The White House statement on the matter will only help push the conversation in congress. That’s a good thing.

Here’s Matt Yglesias, who writes at Slate that the Obama administration came out against SOPA and PIPA:

It increasingly looks like the SOPA/Protect IP fights are turning into an example of how the political system sometimes does work correctly after all. The con forces on these bills initially looked numerically overwhelmed in congress and hugely outspent. But opponents really mobilized vocally, got people and institutions who don’t normally focus on politics to write about this, and perhaps most important of all demonstrated that more people genuinely cared about this issue than most members of congress initially realized. Now the momentum has slowed incredibly and the White House technology policy team has come out against these bills.

To look a gift horse in the mouth for a second, however, I note that the White House statement does contain a “reasonable” to-be-sure line stating that “online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation’s most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs.”

Greg Sandoval and Declan McCullagh for CNET: DNS provision pulled from SOPA, victory for opponents:

Without the DNS provision, SOPA now looks a great deal more like the OPEN Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), which was designed to be an alternative to SOPA. A watered-down SOPA means Smith improves his chances of getting the bill through Congress but at this point, nothing is assured.

Late today came word that six Republican senators have asked Majority Leader Harry Reid to postpone a vote on Pro IP, also known as PIPA. The senators wrote: “Prior to committee action, some members expressed substantive concerns about the bill, and there was a commitment to resolve them prior to floor consideration.”

Leahy issued a statement which appears to be a reply to the request by those senators. He argued that the PIPA vote should go ahead as planned.

“Saying no to debating the [Pro IP Act] hurts the economy,” Leahy wrote. “It says no to the American workers whose livelihoods depend on intellectual property-reliant businesses. And it says yes to the criminals hiding overseas stealing American intellectual property…all Senators should agree that this is a debate we must have…and should support cloture on the motion to proceed on January 24.”

It sounds as if Leahy is trying to keep some of the bill’s supporters from bolting. There’s little question now that some SOPA and PIPA backers in Congress are in retreat and seeking some kind of compromise in the face of significant opposition.

Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing: Lamar Smith and Patrick Leahy blink, pull DNS-blocking out of PIPA and SOPA

After repeatedly insisting that establishing a national censoring firewall with DNS-blocking was critical to the Stop Online Piracy Act, the bill’s sponsor (and chair of the House Judicial Committee) Rep Lamar Smith has blinked. He’s agreed to cut DNS-blocking from the bill, in the face of a threat from rival Rep Darrell Issa, whose House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was preparing to hear expert testimony on the harm that this provision would do to national security and the Internet’s robustness against fraud and worse.

Even without its DNS provisions, SOPA remains terminally flawed, creating a regime that would be terminally hostile to any site that contains links and any site that allows the public to post comments on it. But attention has shifted to PIPA, the Senate version of the bill, which is nearly as bad, and which is rocketing towards an imminent vote.

Timothy Lee at ArsTechnica: Obama administration joins the ranks of SOPA skeptics:

Combine all those concerns, and the statement is a fairly sweeping condemnation of SOPA and PIPA in their current form. Espinel and her colleagues appear to have left enough wiggle room in the statement to allow the president to sign a future version of the bill that addresses some, but not all, of the critics’ concerns. But the bill’s sponsors are now going to have to work hard to satisfy critics and build a consensus in favor of passage.

Tim O’Reilly at Google+ on the White House response to the epetition on SOPA and PIPA:

I found myself profoundly disturbed by something that seems to me to go to the root of the problem in Washington: the failure to correctly diagnose the problem we are trying to solve, but instead to accept, seemingly uncritically, the claims of various interest groups. The offending paragraph is as follows:

“Let us be clear—online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation’s most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs. It harms everyone from struggling artists to production crews, and from startup social media companies to large movie studios. While we are strongly committed to the vigorous enforcement of intellectual property rights, existing tools are not strong enough to root out the worst online pirates beyond our borders.”

In the entire discussion, I’ve seen no discussion of credible evidence of this economic harm. There’s no question in my mind that piracy exists, that people around the world are enjoying creative content without paying for it, and even that some criminals are profiting by redistributing it. But is there actual economic harm?

In my experience at O’Reilly, the losses due to piracy are far outweighed by the benefits of the free flow of information, which makes the world richer, and develops new markets for legitimate content. Most of the people who are downloading unauthorized copies of O’Reilly books would never have paid us for them anyway; meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of others are buying content from us, many of them in countries that we were never able to do business with when our products were not available in digital form.

History shows us, again and again, that frontiers are lawless places, but that as they get richer and more settled, they join in the rule of law. American publishing, now the largest publishing industry in the world, began with piracy. (I have a post coming on that subject on Monday.)

Congress (and the White House) need to spend time thinking hard about how best to grow our economy – and that means being careful not to close off the frontier, or to harm those trying to settle it, in order to protect those who want to remain safe at home. British publishers could have come to America in the 19th century; they chose not to, and as a result, we grew our own indigenous publishing industry, which relied at first, in no small part, on pirating British and European works.

If the goal is really to support jobs and the American economy, internet “protectionism” is not the way to do it.

*The White House emailed me later in the morning to point out that the epetition response was posted on Saturday morning.

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.