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.

Going Nuclear to stop SOPA

I'm sure this violates someone's copyright

The online news site reddit said it will invoke the “nuclear option” on Jan. 18 – next Wednesday — against two pieces of federal legislation, the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate cousin, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).

For 12 hours on Wednesday, reddit’s normally busy “front page of the Internet” will blacked out and replaced by a live video feed of hearings by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is debating proposed legislation to give the government the ability to shut down foreign websites that infringe copyrighted material, and to penalize domestic companies  that “facilitate” alleged infringement.

It remains unclear if Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Craigslist, eBay, PayPal, Yahoo and other Internet titans will join in a simultaneous blackout to protest the legislation, although the trade association that represents them all says it is a possibility. “There have been some serious discussions about that,” Markham C. Erickson, Executive Director and General Counsel of The NetCoalition, told CNET’s Declan McCullagh. The Net Coalition is not involved with reddit’s action next week, a spokeswoman said.

A coordinated systemwide blackout, proponents say, would demonstrate to millions of Americans what could happen to any website that carries user-generated content, if SOPA or PIPA were enacted.

In current forms, the bills would require online service providers, Internet search engines, payment providers and Internet advertising services to police their customers and banish offenders. Companies that did not comply with the government’s order to prevent their customers from connecting with foreign rogue sites would be punished.

Let’s say a company like YouTube, which publishes an average of 48 hours of video every minute, fails to stop one of its 490 million monthly users from uploading a chunk of video that is copyrighted by a Hollywood studio. Let’s say further that one of Twitter’s 400 tweets per minute that link to YouTube videos contains a link to that copyrighted material. And maybe one of Facebook’s 800 million users reposts the link. YouTube says Facebook users watch 150 years worth of YouTube videos every day. And let’s say you hear about the video and enter a search for it on Google.

Under the proposed legislation, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Google are responsible for keeping their users within the law. SOPA grants those companies immunity from punishment if they shut down or block suspected wrongdoers. But if they don’t shut down or block the miscreants, they could be punished themselves.

Both the House and Senate bills are strongly backed by Old Media companies, and equally opposed by New Media companies, along with an astonishing confederation of civil libertarians, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, journalists and academics.

Both sides cast the legislation as a battle of life and death for the future of the Internet.

Opponents contend that SOPA would shut down the free flow of information and prevent Americans from fully exercising their First Amendment rights. Venture capitalists say it will kill innovation in Silicon Valley by setting up impossible burdens for the social media companies that now drive the area’s economic engine. Some critics say SOPA will hand Big Business a “kill switch” on the Internet similar to the shutoff valves used by China, Egypt and other repressive countries to stifle dissent.

Supporters of the legislation, meanwhile, say new laws are needed to fight online trafficking on copyrighted materials and counterfeit goods. No one can deny that the Internet is awash in fake Viagra and bootlegged MP3 files. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who sponsored SOPA, says it will stop foreign online criminals from stealing and selling America’s intellectual property and keeping the profits for themselves. Unless copyright holders are given the new protections under SOPA, Mr. Smith argues, American innovation will stop, American jobs will be lost, and the American economy will continue to lose $100 billion a year to online pirates. And people will die, Mr. Smith says, if we fail to stop foreign villains from selling dangerous counterfeit drugs, fake automobile parts and tainted baby food.

“The criticism of this bill is completely hypothetical; none of it is based in reality,” Mr. Smith told Roll Call recently. “Not one of the critics was able to point to any language in the bill that would in any way harm the Internet. Their accusations are simply not supported by any facts.”

“It’s a vocal minority, Mr. Smith told Roll Call. “Because they’re strident doesn’t mean they’re either legitimate or large in number. One, they need to read the language. Show me the language. There’s nothing they can point to that does what they say it does do.”

Who are these clueless critics who don’t know anything about the Internet?

Vint Cerf, Steven Bellovin, Esther Dyson, Dan Kaminsky and dozens of other Internet innovators and engineers wrote an open letter that said: “If enacted, either of these bills will create an environment of tremendous fear and uncertainty for technological innovation, and seriously harm the credibility of the United States in its role as a steward of key Internet infrastructure.”

AOL, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Zynga and other Internet companies joined in an open letter to write, “We are very concerned that the bills as written would seriously undermine the effective mechanism Congress enacted in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) to provide a safe harbor for Internet companies that act in good faith to remove infringing content from their sites.”

Marc Andreessen, Craig Newmark, Jerry Yang, Reid Hoffman, Caterina Fake, Pierre Omidyar, Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey, Jimmy Wales and other Internet entrepreneurs contend that the bills would:

  •             “Require web services to monitor what users link to, or upload. This would have a chilling effect on innovation.
  •             “Deny website owners the right to due process or law.
  •             “Give the U.S. government the power to censor the web using techniques similar to those used by China, Malaysia and Iran; and
  •             “Undermine security online by changing the basic structure of the Internet.”

A couple of guys named Sergey Brin and Larry Page have been particularly vocal in opposing the legislation.

Well of course, Mr. Smith argues. “Companies like Google have made billions by working with and promoting foreign rogue websites, so they have a vested interest in preventing Congress from stopping rogue sites,” he said at a news conference last month. “Their opposition to this legislation is self-serving since they profit from doing business with rogue sites that steal and sell America’s intellectual property.”

I think everyone agrees that something must be done to combat rampant online piracy and the sale of bogus goods and services by foreign rogue websites. But Old Media is once asking for heavy-handed remedies that resist rather than adapt to technological change. It tried to outlaw videocassette recorders, and it tried to throw students and grandmothers into prison for downloading MP3 files, and now it wants kill-switches on the Internet. Perhaps reddit’s nuclear option will be the kind of heavy-handed rebuttal we need to prompt discussions about a smarter, mutually agreeable solution.