In addition to protests in cities including San Francisco (where MC Hammer spoke) and New York, an estimated 10,000 websites went dark today in a widespread Internet protest to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) now before the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) before the Senate.
The bills target foreign websites that pilfer content and sell pirated and counterfeit goods, forcing U.S. companies to stop selling ads to suspected online pirates, processing payments for illegal sales and refusing to list suspected sites in search results.
Although a number of influential politicians backed down, SOPA's author and lead backer, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), told The Wall Street Journal today that the bill addresses concerns and isn't censorship, commenting: “It’s easy to engage in fear-mongering and it’s easy to raise straw men and red herrings, but if they read the bill they will be reassured.”
Smith, however, lost serious support among his colleagues.
PIPA co-sponsor Florida Sen. Marco Rubio pulled his name today on a Facebook post, titled “A Better Way to Fight the Online Theft of American Ideas and Jobs.” Rubio urged co-sponsor Nevada Sen. Harry Reid to follow suit “and abandon the bill in order to take more time to address the concerns raised by all sides, and come up with new legislation that addresses Internet piracy while protecting free and open access to the Internet.”
Next came Texas Sen. John Cornyn posting his statement also on Facebook, while a spokesperson for Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry said he will not support SOPA as it’s written as reported in the Omaha World-Herald. It’s a virtual fisticuffs as politicians, web brands and tech companies square-off about fundamental issues of cost, control and censorship in the largest Internet battle since its inception.
"There is a changing of the guard in D.C. The political power mirrors the marketplace growth. You see a lot of gravitational pull toward these new tech guys," observed a media executive with Washington experience to WSJ. It also, of course, shows the massive power of web brands, who by taking their sites offline — or encouraging the public to voice their opinions, as Google is doing — got Washington (some key figures in Washington) to back down.
The political significance is substantial, notes the Washington Post. “It culminates a surprising lobbying effort in which technology companies such as Twitter, Wikipedia and Google have used their massive reach into Americans’ daily lives as a political weapon, to whip up support from online users. In this fight, they were pitted against traditional Washington heavyweights, such as Hollywood and the recording industry.”
“The voice of the Internet community has been heard,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), in a statement. “Much more education for Members of Congress about the workings of the Internet is essential,” reported the Post.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg called the bills “poorly-thought out laws that get in the way of the internet’s development,” and said the times call for “political leaders who are pro-internet.” He also tweeted for the first time since 2009: “Tell your congressmen you want them to be pro-internet. My Facebook post is here: https://t.co/XEmFNxGt,” he tweeted via his @finkd account.
"SOPA and PIPA are prime examples of big companies trying to do everything they can to stop new competitors from innovating. They're also examples of how lobbying in the United States has become one of the most effective ways of limiting this sort of competition," commented Harvard Business Review.
The Wall Street Journal’s parent, News Corp., supports the bills, writing, “Companies supposedly devoted to the free flow of information are gagging themselves, and the only practical effect will be to enable fraudsters. They've taken no comparable action against, say, Chinese repression.”
“The e-vangelists seem to believe that anybody is entitled to access to any content at any time at no cost—open source. Their real ideological objection is to the concept of copyright itself, and they oppose any legal regime that values original creative work. The offline analogue is Occupy Wall Street.”
In a rare bipartisan resistance, liberal grassroots organizer MoveOn and hardline conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, oppose SOPA and PIPA. The White House also supports the protests.
The once-covert wheeling and dealing between Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Washington is now vibrantly transparent as fundamental issues of censorship and copyright are redefined by the digital marketplace, and the pendulum of leverage swings towards netizens.