Hollywood and Silicon Valley test wikigovernment

January 18, 2012

By Richard Beales

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

It’s the talk of the blogosphere even if facts can’t be checked because Wikipedia has gone dark. The community-edited encyclopedia founded by Jimmy Wales is blacked out in protest over Hollywood-backed anti-piracy legislation in the U.S. Congress. Its passage now looks unlikely. But the spat is revealing about old media, new media and Washington.

The action by Wikipedia, aped to some extent by Google and others, is part of a campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House of Representatives and a similar bill in the Senate. SOPA as written would force Internet companies to block access to foreign sites deemed to breach U.S. copyright.

While producers of content have a right to protect intellectual property, the first lesson of this wikibattle is that old media is still fighting the virtual world instead of embracing it. The experience of the music and book industries with Apple, Google and others apparently wasn’t enough. The second lesson is just how embedded the movie and music industries must be in the U.S. capital to have drafted overweening legislation with so much support and so few initial objections.

As for Google, Wikipedia and the rest, it looks as though they’re still figuring out the crass but necessary practice of lobbying. How else to explain a mostly tardy response to a proposal that has the potential to suck the life out of their traditional and, in some cases, lucrative lifeblood of all-access openness. Yet they may also have just discovered how powerful they can be in political corridors after a relatively short span of years.

The White House started backing away over the weekend. Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, who initially co-sponsored the Senate legislation, withdrew his support on Wednesday – in a Facebook post, naturally. Several co-sponsors of the House bill also distanced themselves from it. What looked like a smooth, fast track to approval is now anything but.

It’s a pity lawmakers missed the excesses in the bills. In a way, though, the back-and-forth shows government working as it should. Of course, conflict had to boil up first and create a showdown. But in Washington, that seems increasingly to be the norm.

Comments

It would be fascinating to see the actual wording of the clauses in the SOPA bill that are considered harmful to free speech. Can Reuters provide that for its readers?

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