Web companies don't always do the best job of explaining their stands on policy matters to the public. Issues like net neutrality, for instance, or policies regarding broadband competition, privacy, or even online taxes, can potentially affect a big swath of Internet companies -- and consumers -- yet few Web companies have been able to communicate why these topics are important -- at least not in a way that doesn't make people's eyes glaze over.
But Internet companies ranging from Wikipedia to Reddit to Google to I Can Haz Cheezburger effectively used their platforms today to rally opposition to two controversial anti-piracy bills -- the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate. Many sites suggested that users ask their representatives to oppose the bills.
Whether the protests will make any difference long-term remains to be seen, but they seemed to be having an impact today: As of 5 p.m., at least seven senators issued statements disavowing the legislation. That marks a significant turn of events from last year, when the Protect-IP Act unanimously cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Even before today's protests, lawmakers backed away from some of the most contentious portions of the bills -- provisions for court orders banning Internet service providers from putting through traffic to certain domain names. But critics say the bills still threaten legitimate companies that rely on user-generated content.
The legislation is meant to target “rogue” piracy sites, but the language is broad enough that the bills could require all sites to more closely police content uploaded by users. Such policing requirements would make it difficult for companies to host user-created material. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act currently requires Web site operators to respond to takedown notices or risk copyright infringement liability, but doesn't require sites to proactively seek out and remove infringing material uploaded by users.
The bills also provide for orders banning search engines from returning links to rogue sites, and banning credit card companies and ad networks from doing business with such sites.
One group that wasn't happy with today's protests is the Motion Picture Association of America, which backs the legislation. CEO and Chairman Chris Dodd issued a statement condemning Web companies for “resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns, rather than coming to the table to find solutions to a problem that all now seem to agree is very real and damaging.”
Of course, one of the biggest complaints by Web companies is that they were denied a place at the table when these bills were forged. If the MPAA now wants the Internet community included in talks about anti-piracy legislation, no one would be happier than the Web companies themselves.