Stopping the Stop Online Piracy Act
Now that Congress has hit pause on its controversial Stop Online Piracy Act and nearly every argument about the merits and failings of the piece of copyright legislation has been made, it’s a good time to ask: what, in 2012, will it take to actually stop a bill like this?
Because despite the delay, the situation still isn’t looking so hot for those looking to bring down SOPA. Amendments to tone down the bill’s more disliked points have been routinely defeated in the House Judiciary Committee by numbers sufficient to pass the bill to the full House floor.
But, at this point in the process, numbers aren’t everything. In the wake of the Arab Spring, talk of censoring technology hits the ears differently. More important is that in SOPA’s short two-month life, opposition to it has catalyzed online and off. But to succeed, its opponents will have to both boost the volume of their public alarm and convince Congress that, in an Internet-soaked 2012, questioning SOPA needn’t be politically fatal.
Washington isn’t the land of Luddites it once was. Members of Congress, of course, love their smartphones; Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are political staples. (Twitter says just over 85 percent of representatives in each chamber are on the service.) But the challenge for SOPA’s opponents has been to demonstrate that the power and joys of Facebook and, say, SOPA’s questionable domain-name filtering policy are two parts of the same webby whole.
We’re seeing that understanding catalyze amazingly quickly—at least among web users. Starting with a small band of early objectors, resistance to SOPA has been spreading out, gathering steam, and popping up in all sorts of places. There’s been a tsunami of Twitter traffic against the bill, much of it tagged with the #SOPA hashtag. That chatter has driven blog posts, given journalists fodder, and provided constant commentary on Congress’s often convoluted and confusing proceedings.
And, notably, the bill has prodded the entrepreneurs who run some of the Internet’s best-known sites into creative acts of protest. The blogging site Tumblr mock-censored itself. The file-sharing site Scribd posted a SOPA button that, when clicked, disappeared documents. Wikipedia is considering a temporary block on access to its millions of entries. Beyond that, heaps of calls have been made to Congress, engineers have written letters, and SOPA-doubting editorials have been penned by such newspapers as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
(TV coverage, meanwhile, has been hard to come by. For what it’s worth, Comcast and Viacom support the bill.)
As high-tech as much of that activity has been, it has, in the aggregate, been an act of good ol’ consciousness-raising. The more the argument is advanced, the more opponents are convinced politicians will realize that putting websites on such shaky footing is simply something that American lawmakers just don’t do.
To that end, the current congressional break comes at an opportune time. Many members of Congress are back in their home districts, engaging with constituents. Demand Progress, an advocacy group that is rallying against SOPA, says that it is planning drop-ins at town halls. Congressional watchers describe this break as the perfect time for members of Congress to reflect upon the wisdom of one of the least popular entities in American life – Congress’s approval rating is as low as 11 percent at last check – tampering with the Internet, one of the few things in the U.S. that seems to be working pretty well at the moment.
But let’s put aside the house calls and get back to the House – and the rest of the Washington establishment. There’s another, more rudimentary political strategy that, for SOPA’s opponents, is also showing promise.
At work in the capital is an effort to first draw a line in the sand on the Internet and then push Washington’s big players to one side or another. SOPA opponents’ flagship project: convincing Google to follow Yahoo’s lead and leave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the giant business lobby that has thrown its considerable weight behind SOPA. To that end, activists recently delivered a giant Gmail envelope to Google’s Washington offices, containing signatures on an online petition asking it to leave the organization. Google Inc. is but a baby in Washington – the MPAA has 83 years on it – and its solo lobbying efforts have been occasionally clumsy. But the company is reportedly beginning to wonder whether its interests are well-aligned with those of the business lobby that it reflexively joined upon arrival in DC.
And in that vein, earlier this month came one particularly troubling recent sign for the Chamber. Prompted by the SOPA fight, scores of entrepreneurs and company founders like Sergey Brin of Google, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Square, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, Pierre Omidyar of eBay, and Chad Hurley of YouTube, formed Engine Advocacy, “a group of small businesses in the technology sector working together to think about how best to tackle the common issues we all face.” It’s a small effort – a scrappy start-up in the lobbying world, but it reads like a challenge to the Chamber’s free-market-at-all-costs dogma. And one can picture the U.S. Chamber of Commerce having a good hard think about whether it’s okay with “commerce” not including major parts of the Internet economy from here on out.
The ultimate goal of that political maneuvering: to convince Washington lawmakers that there’s support – and, to put it more crassly, money – in siding with the Internet. (At the moment, pro-SOPA contributions to Judiciary Committee members outweigh anti-SOPA ones some 4-to-1, according to the watchdog group Maplight.)
All that said, the somewhat dreary truth is that once bills like SOPA are set in motion, they have a momentum all their own. Even if SOPA’s backers in Congress are having buyer’s remorse, they may well be reluctant to disappoint Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican and Judiciary Committee chairman who is shepherding the bill through the House. Those familiar with the House’s inner-workings say Smith doesn’t like to feel bullied. And even if the MPAA has less power in the full House than in the Judiciary Committee, the Chamber of Commerce is still a force with which to be reckoned in Congress.
In the end, SOPA’s opponents’ path to success might be to peel off individual members with targeted arguments. They might appeal to the old dogs on the argument that the bill has been rushed through without proper consultation with technical experts. For the conservative wing, there’s the notion that it equips the Justice Department with barely-fettered new powers over the Internet. For the young guns, it might be, “Hey, don’t you really like the Internet the way that it is?” If SOPA becomes sufficiently distasteful, there’s a chance that Speaker Boehner and the House’s Republican leadership will opt to not bother bringing it to the floor.
And the fact is that if SOPA dies, its successor bill – and there will be a successor bill, there’s always a successor bill – will find itself dropped into a changed political world.
That world has proven capable of reconfiguring itself at Internet speed. And that’s a reality with which those who want to control the Internet from here on out will have to contend.
PHOTO: Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt speaks during the Freedom internet conference in the Hague December 8, 2011. REUTERS/Michael Kooren