Lessons for Tech from the SOPA Fight

It’s too early for opponents of new laws giving the government sweeping new powers to fight internet piracy by cutting off access to web sites to declare victory. A my colleague Peter Lewis points out, these forces are in fact preparing to take the fights to new levels.

Pareick Leahy photo
Senator Patrick Leahy

But the fact is that the once seemingly inevitable march to passage Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate now seems very much in doubt. The laterst blow came when Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, the author of PIPA, said he would need to reconsider the provisions that would allow the government to block access to offending sites.

How did the tech industry turn what looked like certain defeat into a likely victory? And what can it learn from the effort.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that a concerted and noisy effort can sway public opinion—and congressional votes. Some of the claims of SOPA opponents were overstated to the point of hysteria. It was a very bad piece of legislation, but only under a government both malevolent and stupid would it have caused “the end of the internet as we know it” or led to the destruction of sites such as Facebook or YouTube. But hyperbolic claims are, alas, the stuff of political debates and the supports of the bills were guilty of equally gross exaggerations.

The tech industry was way too passive during the early stages of the fight. Legislators of both parties are anxious to please the entertainment industry, which was the driving force behind the bills, and PIPA was able to collect a bipartisan roster of 40 Senate sponsors before the tech world mounted an effective response. Some major tech companies let their historic fear of software piracy blind them to the much greater threat posed by the proposed legislation. Both PIPA and SOPA seemed well on their way to passage before the Business Software Alliance, dominated by companies such as Microsoft and Adobe, was shamed into withdrawing its support.

But the industry mounted an effective, if loosely coordinated counterattack that took full advantage of opponents’ tactical errors. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) made an embarrassing mistake when he scheduled just one day of hearings of PIPA and allowed only one opposition witness, Google. He then compounded the error by trying to drive the bill through committee in the rush to the Christmas recess. Smith and his allies defeated efforts to strip or modify some of SOPA’s more extreme provisions, but even as they seemed to be railroading the bill, support was eroding. The first drafting session adjourned without a final vote in committee, and efforts to revive the markup before yearend failed.

The industry, for once putting up a united front, also found its voice as numerous tech luminaries spoke out against the legislation. Vint Cerf, Google’s chief internet evangelist and an unquestioned expert on how the internet works, having invented a good bit of it, was particularly effective. Opponents of the bills also learned to work with key legislators whom they do not always regard as their closest friends. Rep. Darryl Issa (R-Calif.) played a critical role in halting SOPA’s march to passage. And a massive grassroots campaign added to the pressure on lawmakers.

SOPA and PIPA are by no means dead and Hollywood and its allies will make a concerted effort to to revive the bills when Congress returns later in January. But the passage that once looked certain now seems like a 50-50 chance at best—and a much more industry-friendly alternative backed by Issa and Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) appears to be gaining momentum.

The tech industry should play close attention to what happened in this fight. It will not only help finish the victory, but could be very important in the inevitable policy fights to cpme.