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For the ordinary web user, it will mean more difficulty in using search engines to find what you want, and a reduced ability to share online content. It will also mean less innovation for which all Internet users can take advantage. It may also impact social media in ways that are unknown, but might include pre-screening comments and photos.
All of this is reason enough for the big websites to make their feelings known by the strongest possible means. And they appear to be getting results. The White House has issued a statement that President Obama will “not support any legislation that reduces freedom of expression … or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.” This forced the sponsor of the bill in the House, Rep. Smith, to withdraw one of the more onerous parts of the bill relating to getting DNS services to block offending sites.
There has also been fallout with regard to co-sponsors who have withdrawn their names from the bills. Three Republican senators – Marco Rubio, John Cornyn, and Roy Blount — have withdrawn their support, bringing the number of co-sponsors below 40. This puts the bill in jeopardy of failing to make it past a potential filibuster and could force Majority Leader Harry Reid to withdraw the bill from consideration.
In the House, Lee Terry (R-NE) and Ben Quayle (R-AZ) have rescinded their support for SOPA, and Chairman Smith has indicated he will revisit the bill in February after he can fashion a consensus. Smith remains adamant that he will bring the bill to the floor despite growing opposition from his Republican colleagues who are really beginning to hear it from the online community. Smith tried to downplay the blackout, saying, “I realize some people are nervous because of misinformation about this bill, but I am confident that ultimately the facts will overcome fears.”
In fact, the tech community, not known for its political advocacy, has flexed its muscles in this fight. Millions of signatures were gathered for online petitions against the legislation. House and senate websites slowed to a crawl as traffic doubled. Phone calls poured into lawmakers’ offices. Emails were so numerous, that congressional inboxes were full and servers were running at full capacity. The onslaught took many on the Hill by surprise. Some of the response is clearly overreaction, but there are enough awful provisions in both bills to justify a strong response.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced an alternative anti-pirating measure on Wednesday. It is a companion bill to legislation offered earlier by Ron Wyden (D-OR) in the senate. The Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade (OPEN) Act would allow copyright holders to file infringement complaints about foreign websites with the U.S. International Trade Commission. The ITC would then investigate the complaints and decide whether U.S. payment processors and online advertising networks should be required to cut off funding.
Issa calls the legislation a “targeted, effective solution to the problem,” while Wyden wants the Senate to forgo debate on PIPA and work on “achieving an enduring and real agreement that combats copyright infringement without doing lasting harm to the Internet.”
Reconciling the need to protect intellectual property rights while maintaining a free and open Internet seems a contradiction at this point. The offending sites are almost all offshore and the problems documented above with enforcement and what amounts to censorship of the Internet make the proposed solutions injurious to liberty.
But perhaps there is a way forward. As Paul Rosenzweig of the Heritage Foundation writes, Congress “asks the right questions, but offers the wrong answers.” It is imperative for all concerned that we get it right because the alternatives are bad for both sides.
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