SOPA and PIPA: Web protests seem to be a turning point

Opponents of the bills say Wednesday's protests have turned the tide against the copyright legislation

REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Opponents of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act cheered Wednesday's Web blackout as a turning point in the debate over the two controversial copyright protection bills.

Momentum in the debate over PIPA and SOPA seems to have shifted in favor of opponents in recent days, with several lawmakers voicing new opposition, and the White House appearing to distance itself from the two bills. The Web blackout Wednesday may be remembered as one of the first successful online uprisings in the U.S., but leaders in the U.S. Senate still planned to begin voting on PIPA next Tuesday.

Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, blacked out her own website to protest the bills. "History is being made by the more than 10,000 websites that have chosen to boycott SOPA by participating in today's blackout," she tweeted.

Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican and opponent of the two bills, also praised participants in the Web blackout for educating the public about the issue. The Web blackout led to widespread media coverage of the opposition to SOPA and PIPA.

"This unprecedented effort has turned the tide against a backroom lobbying effort by interests that aren't used to being told 'no,'" Issa said in a statement. "I know suspending and changing access to sites was not necessarily an easy decision, but this is a responsible and transparent exercise of freedom of speech."

On Tuesday, Chris Dodd, chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, called the Web protest a "stunt" and a "gimmick."

Many of the concerns about PIPA are "flatly wrong," added Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill.

"No one disputes that copyright infringement and counterfeiting on the Internet must be addressed," Leahy said in a statement. "Hiding behind the black box of self-censorship does not resolve the problem that is plaguing American business and hurting American consumers. "

Protesting to protect foreign criminals "is irresponsible, will cost American jobs, and is just wrong," Leahy added.

Here's what to expect next after Wednesday's protests.

What's happening with PIPA?

Although there have been several changes in the landscape in recent days, it appears that the U.S. Senate will begin voting on PIPA next Tuesday, Jan. 24. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that he plans to push forward with the bill, although senators may offer an amendment to appease some concerns.

Reid has not detailed what would be included in an amendment. Opponents of the bills say several parts of them remain problematic, and a major reworking would be needed for them to drop their opposition.

Leahy said last week that he may offer an amendment to PIPA taking out one of the most controversial provisions affecting Internet service providers and the Internet's domain-name system. That provision would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders requiring ISPs (Internet service providers) to block their subscribers from accessing the foreign websites accused by the DOJ of infringing copyright by selling unauthorized music and movies and physical goods such as medicine and handbags.

Leahy has not yet released the language of his proposed amendment to PIPA.

So at this point, it's not clear what the version of PIPA to be voted on in the Senate will look like.

On Wednesday, Republican Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and John Cornyn of Texas, both of whom were original co-sponsors of PIPA, called on Reid to postpone the vote on PIPA in favor of more debate. Rubio said he planned to withdraw his sponsorship of the bill.

What's happening with SOPA?

In the House of Representatives, SOPA may be on hold for the moment. Issa said Saturday that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has assured him that SOPA won't move forward in the House until consensus is reached. Cantor has not made that promise publicly.

Meanwhile, Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and lead sponsor of SOPA, said he will continue a markup session -- to amend and debate SOPA -- in the House Judiciary Committee in February. Smith is chairman of the committee.

Like Leahy, Smith has promised to remove the ISP and DNS blocking provision in SOPA, but he also has not released the new language.

This week, Representatives Ben Quayle, an Arizona Republican, and Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican, said they were withdrawing as sponsors of SOPA.

The White House response

On Saturday, three officials in President Barack Obama's administration issued a statement that seemed to oppose PIPA and SOPA. The statement called on both sides in the debate to work on a compromise to protect U.S. copyright holders.

The White House statement said the administration would not support legislation that would inhibit innovation or cause cybersecurity problems, two of the most repeated criticisms of PIPA and SOPA.

But the White House statement never mentioned SOPA or PIPA by name and didn't explicitly say the Obama administration opposed the bills or would veto them. Supporters of the bills said PIPA and SOPA meet the conditions articulated by the White House.

What's in the bills

SOPA and PIPA differ in some ways, but both bills would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders requiring U.S. online advertising networks and payment processors to stop doing business with foreign websites accused of infringing U.S. copyright. The DOJ could also seek court orders requiring search engines, and possible other sites, to stop linking to the accused websites.

The bills would apply to foreign sites trafficking in pirated music and movies, but also to sites selling counterfeit goods, including handbags, cigarettes, medicine and clothing.

The bills would allow U.S. copyright holders to seek court orders targeting ad networks and payment processors.

The bills would also give legal immunity to Internet service providers, domain-name registrars, search engines, payment processors and online ad networks that voluntarily cut off service to accused websites.

Opponents of the bills have several concerns. The bills allow little due process for owners of foreign websites before court orders that shut off their income, they say. The bills could cut off legitimate free speech on sites that have user-generated content, critics say.

With the court actions by copyright holders and the legal immunity for service providers that take voluntary action, it's likely that service providers looking to avoid legal costs will cut off websites without a fight, opponents of the bills say.

Supporters of the bills say online piracy and counterfeiting is a multi-billion-dollar industry that costs the U.S. hundreds of thousands of jobs. The bills are narrowly targeted, focusing on foreign websites primarily focused on piracy or counterfeiting, they say.

While law enforcement agencies have tools to fight piracy and counterfeiting on U.S. sites, they have little power to strike at foreign websites, supporters of the bills say. A significant percentage of Internet traffic is related to piracy, supporters say, and the bills would help shut down many piracy and counterfeit sites to U.S. Internet users.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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