New Congress seen shunning SOPA

Backers fear a new bill like the Stop Online Piracy Act would elicit a repeat of last year's massive online protests.

As A new U.S. Congress begins work this month, few insiders expect that there will a rush to create new versions of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) or the Protect IP Act (PIPA).

Internet antipiracy legislation, as embodied by SOPA in the House and PIPA in the Senate, was by far the most controversial tech issue taken up by the outgoing Congress.

The bills would have given the U.S. Department of Justice and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency the power to order domain-name registrars to cut service to websites accused of online piracy or counterfeiting U.S. products. They also would have given officials the authority to prohibit search engines from linking to such sites, and to take action against online advertisers and payment processors with business ties to suspected pirates.

A humongous public outcry prompted a wholesale retreat by supporters of the bills; Senate leaders cancelled a PIPA vote, and SOPA was withdrawn by its sponsor in the House.

On one level, the battle was between industry groups: big music and movie content providers vs. the tech industry. But for millions of people who protested on Reddit and elsewhere, it was about something more fundamental: Internet freedom.

While some business groups are still pushing for government action against online piracy, lawmakers likely lack the collective will to face a protest similar to last year's, in which a number of websites chose to "go dark" to illustrate the effect the laws could have.

"That was an avalanche they've never seen," said Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a trade group that opposed the bills. "They're going to tiptoe in this area very carefully."

Even weaker bills that would affect only advertisers and payment processors doing business with suspected piracy sites are likely nonstarters, Black said.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), SOPA's main sponsor, said the congressman has no plans to introduce such a bill in 2013. He will defer to Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who is now chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, she said.

Goodlatte, a co-sponsor of the 2012 SOPA bill, wouldn't comment on his plans.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the primary sponsor of PIPA, didn't respond to a request for comment.

The Recording Industry Association of America, which last year pushed for passage of both bills, plans to focus on other issues. The RIAA's "core mission" now is to promote its array of digital formats and focus on "voluntary marketplace initiatives," said spokesman Jonathan Lamy.

Opponents of the bills hope to continue having a say in debates about copyright reform, said Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, a digital rights group.

In November, the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House Republicans, published and then retracted a paper advocating the weakening of some copyright protections, Cheng noted. "It seems like the SOPA protests and blackout created an opening for a discussion on copyright reform," she said by email. "We'll be working with groups and the public on a plan."

Experts say that any new legislation would likely aim to curb million-dollar-plus damage awards for infringement, or would be similar to the Pandora-backed Internet Radio Fairness Act, which aims to set royalty terms for Internet broadcasters.

Gross is a reporter for the IDG News Service.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from two articles that appeared earlier on "Congress may not have stomach for another SOPA" and "SOPA blowback, and other tech predictions for 2013."

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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