If nothing else, this week's protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP showed that online calls to action can be effective. Google, Craigslist, Wikipedia and countless other sites devoted online real estate to campaigns urging people to oppose the anti-piracy measures. Web users did so in droves. Google reported that more than 7 million people signed an online petition opposing the bills. At Wikipedia, more than 8 million people used an interactive tool to find the phone numbers of their representatives.
Faced with this unexpected populist backlash, dozens of lawmakers backed away from the controversial anti-piracy legislation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said this morning that he won't move forward with a vote on Protect IP that had been slated for Tuesday. In the House, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), said today that the Judiciary Committee won't resume its markup in February.
These developments represent a significant change from earlier this week, when both lawmakers insisted that they would press ahead with the bills. The recent backtracking marks an even bigger change from last year, when Protect IP unanimously cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Hollywood-backed bills target “rogue” Web sites that are dedicated to infringement, but the language in the bills is so broad that they could have an impact on many sites with user-generated content. Among other provisions, SOPA and Protect IP provide for court orders banning search engines from returning links to “rogue” sites, and also empower courts to prohibit credit card companies and ad networks from doing business with such sites. (The measures originally contained provisions requiring Internet service providers to block domains of rogue sites, but lawmakers said last week that they would drop those provisions.)
Opponents of the measures are cheering news that the bills are being shelved, but also acknowledge that efforts to pass new anti- piracy legislation are likely to continue. Digital rights groups and other opponents of SOPA and Protect IP say that the next round of bills should be the result of a process that includes a broad array of groups.
“At a minimum, Congress should start from scratch to determine the nature of the problem,” Public Knowledge legal director Harold Feld said in a statement. “If Congress goes ahead with legislation, it should hear widely from those concerned about the pending legislation -- from Internet technologists, from law professors, artists, human rights activists, consumers and even public interest groups. Only then will legislation be truly accepted and truly be effective.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation agreed. “Now that the proponents of SOPA/PIPA have blinked, and taken the bills back to committee, there will be calls to come to a 'compromise,'” the group said in a blog post. “As we discuss the future of the Internet, all stakeholders, including the people who use Internet services and consume (and create and share) movies and music, must have a seat at the table. The internet is too important to be debated, dissected and possibly disabled in a private meeting.”