Congress announced earlier this month it would indefinitely postpone voting on two anti-piracy bills in response to the recent upsurge of public protest against the legislations.
The Protect Intellectual Property Act, introduced in the Senate last May by Senator Patrick Leahy, aims primarily to protect against foreign websites posing “online threats to economic creativity and theft of intellectual property.” Texas Congressmember Lamar Smith brought the Stop Online Piracy Act to the House Judiciary Committee in October to similarly protect against online copyright infringement.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stalled the vote on PIPA — originally scheduled for Jan. 24 — to allow lawmakers a chance to address concerns over the bill’s language. Smith also pulled SOPA from discussion until February in light of public concerns about the legislation’s potential implications of Internet censorship.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein, one of several PIPA co-sponsors, said the suspension will allow lawmakers to collaborate with CEOs from major corporations, such as Google’s Eric Schmidt, to modify the bill.
“I believe postponement of the cloture vote is the correct action,” Feinstein said in an email. “I also believe the only way we can resolve the differences on this bill is by the key CEOs sitting down together. It is my opinion that a fair and balanced bill that protects American creators from piracy without imposing undue burdens on California’s growing high-tech community or Internet freedom can be achieved.”
Organizations supporting the legislation include law enforcement agencies, film and media industry members, pharmaceutical corporations and other groups seeking to protect their copyrighted material from illegal online access.
According to UCSB film and media studies professor Jennifer Holt, copyright holders are attempting to adapt to a continuously evolving technological environment.
“They are having their own crisis brought on by piracy and so they want stronger digital piracy laws,” Holt said. “That is what they are lobbying for and that is what is represented in these bills.”
Andy Stone, spokesperson for California Senator Barbara Boxer, said the acts require input from the various sectors the legislation affects.
“It is essential that the theft of intellectual property be dealt with and Senator Boxer is encouraging all sides to come together to resolve this,” Stone said.
However, UCSB political science professor Bruce Bimber said overwhelming public opposition toward the acts could prevent serious deliberation in the near future.
“I doubt it will come back anytime soon; it’s probably dead until the next incoming Congress,” Bimber said. “There is no telling for sure, but the public outcry was so large that I doubt any members are going to want to spend time to fine-tune it.”
According to online campaign contribution tracker OpenSecrets.org, Feinstein received $168,000 and Boxer — another PIPA co-sponsor — received $898,568 in campaign funding from various individuals and political action committees representing the television, movie and music industries.
Holt said the anti-piracy bills reflect the significant sway major industries have in influencing the legislative process.
“This is a perfect example of what we get when we have our government being controlled by lobbyists,” Holt said. “The [Motion Picture Association of America] is an extremely powerful lobby. Where is our lobby? Where is the ‘citizens for open internet’ lobby? There is the Free Press, but they are not nearly as well funded as the MPAA.”
However, several major sites, including Wikipedia, Google, Craigslist, Wired and Reddit blacked out their content or posted anti-SOPA and PIPA messages on Jan. 18 to protest the legislations and mobilize online users in rallying against the bills’ potential impact on online publication freedoms.
Critics claim the acts prevent piracy by censoring links to copyrighted content rather than removing the content itself. Additionally, opponents argue that the legislations’ language fails to clearly define key terms including “foreign” and “domestic” sites and does not protect against copyright holders’ falsely accusing web pages and users of infringing on their intellectual property.
Holt said the acts would grant the government and corporations significant control over online content.
“This is absolutely not the right piece of legislation,” Holt said. “It would criminalize advertising on websites that had copyrighted content that was not there by permission; it would criminalize search engines from linking to certain websites; it would require that ISPs block access [and] it would greatly expand what could be considered criminal in relation to copyrighted material.”
In addition to the online ‘blackouts,’ Google’s official petition to Congress went from approximately 3.5 million signatures to 7 million signatures between Jan. 17 and 18. Various members of Congress dropped support for the bills following the ‘blackouts,’ including Senators and PIPA co-sponsors Marco Rubio, Roy Blunt, Mark Kirk, Orrin Hatch and John Boozman. House members and SOPA co-sponsors Ben Quayle and Lee Terry also withdrew support shortly after the Jan. 18 day of protest.
According to Bimber, the decline in Congressional support highlights the digital media’s ability to mobilize the public in voicing their concerns to their government representatives.
“This was a case where the entertainment industry did not get its way because it ran against another industry: the digital media industry and its users,” Bimber said. “It is a struggle between an old industry with different world views coming into clash with a new industry that works in new ways.”
Bimber said the anti-piracy laws’ movement through Congress reflects the gap in understanding between representatives and their constituents.
“There is a long-standing history in Congress of not understanding digital media and [not] understanding how it works, how people value it and how it is changing over time,” Bimber said. “The most classic example is Senator Stevens referring to the Internet as a series of tubes. That is an extreme case and he is gone, but there are still people who do not understand what is going on with digital media.”