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SOPA and PIPA: What went wrong?

Grant Gross | Jan. 24, 2012
For Internet activists, last week's Web protests against two controversial copyright enforcement bills were a huge victory against three powerful and well-funded trade groups that pushed hard for passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act.

"This was Outside the Beltway descending on Inside the Beltway, and we all just bore witness to it," she said. "People are fed up. Washington is broken, and now Washington wants to subject the Internet to it? The Internet said no."

The Chamber, MPAA and RIAA followed a tried and true method of getting legislation passed in Congress. They repeatedly raised the issue of so-called rogue websites with lawmakers and members of the press over the past two years, all the while pumping campaign donations into the war chests of key legislators. On the other side, a handful of digital liberty groups, Internet trade groups and other activists raised objections, but they were ignored by most lawmakers and mainstream media outlets.

But the groups ran into a brick wall last week, with an estimated 13 million people participating in Wednesday's online protest and an estimated 50,000 websites going dark during the day. Opponents sent an estimated 3 million email messages to Congress during the protest.

Hand grenades for gophers

Beyond the protests, the two bills represented a huge intrusion into the Internet, allowing the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders requiring Internet service providers to cut off access to foreign websites accused of copyright infringement and search engines to remove results to those sites.

Some SOPA and PIPA opponents called the bills an approach equivalent to using hand grenades to deal with a gopher problem in your backyard.

Using a fast-track legal process where most accused website owners wouldn't get a chance to respond to the DOJ requests, the court proceedings raised serious questions about due process and censorship of legitimate content on those sites. And the blocking of sites raised serious concerns about cybersecurity, with Web users likely to turn to foreign, and potentially unsafe, alternatives to find the sites.

Meanwhile, Smith, the lead sponsor of SOPA, and Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and lead sponsor of PIPA, attempted to railroad the bills through Congress. Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced PIPA on May 12, and forced a committee vote on it two weeks later, without one public hearing dedicated to the bill. Leahy's spokeswoman noted that the issue of rogue foreign websites came up in several hearings over the past two years, but none focused on the bill exclusively.

Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, convened one hearing on SOPA, but the witness list was stacked in favor of the bill. Both lead sponsors hung on to the contentious ISP filtering provisions in the bills until earlier this month, when public outcry was starting to coalesce.

The old-politics approach didn't work in the face of a "public avalanche" of public opposition, even though some estimates had supporters of SOPA and PIPA outspending opponents by a 10-to-1 margin, said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group opposed to the bills.


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