Congress backs away from SOPA, PIPA in face of public outcry
- By William Jackson
- Jan 18, 2012
A well-orchestrated online campaign has raised awareness of technical and governance issues with anti-piracy legislation now pending in the House and Senate and has forced legislators to reconsider proposals to filter and block sites on the Internet.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) announced last week that he planned to remove blocking provisions for offending foreign Web sites contained in the Stop Online Piracy Act. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and a critic of the SOPA, announced that he had canceled a Jan. 18 hearing on the impact the bill would have on the Internet’s Domain Name System.
“I am confident that flawed legislation will not be taken up by this House,” Issa said in a statement. “The voice of the Internet community has been heard. Much more education for members of Congress about the workings of the Internet is essential if anti-piracy legislation is to be workable and achieve broad appeal.”
SOPA undercuts Internet security, experts say; lawmakers float alternative
Issa is offering an alternative bill called the OPEN Act that would not include blocking provisions.
The Internet community made itself heard through a combination of grassroots protests and corporate activism that culminated Jan. 18 in an online “strike” in which thousands of sites, including heavy hitters such as Google.com and Wikipedia.org, either took themselves offline or offered protest messages on their sites.
In the Senate, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), sponsor of the equally controversial Protect IP Act, has said critics of the bill are wrong and defended provisions that would require U.S. service providers and search engine operators to block access to offending sites.
Leahy’s Senate Web site and those of other Senators were offline Jan. 18. A spokesman for the senator said the outage was caused by a problem with the Senate server and did not appear to be related to protests against PIPA.
The bills, which are supported by major content providers including the motion picture and music industries, are intended to protect them from overseas sites that sell pirated content or counterfeit goods online.
If an offending site is deemed a “rogue” with no legitimate activities, U.S. Internet service providers could be required to block access to them, search engines could not return links in query results, advertising companies could not serve up their online ads, and financial companies could not process online transactions.
Critics object that this would put an undue burden on U.S. companies and that Internet filtering and blocking amounts to censorship that could inhibit innovation. Blocking sites also would interfere with the operation of DNS Security Extensions, a set of cryptographic protocols intended to help secure the Internet’s Domain Name System. Agencies have been mandated to implement DNSSEC in .gov domains and it is being introduced in other domains across the Internet.
The argument against SOPA and PIPA should not be couched in terms of whether or not intellectual property needs to be protected, said retired ambassador David Smith.
“What’s right about SOPA and PIPA is the motivation,” said Smith, now a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. “Clearly there is a problem in protecting IP. What’s wrong is the way they go about it.”
Rather than reaching out to deal with offending overseas sites outside of U.S. jurisdiction, the bills rely on domestic service providers for enforcement. “It is not going to work and the collateral damage that would be done is considerable,” he said.
He did not question the motives of the bills’ sponsors, although the bills have become caught up in adversarial politics. “This is a new technology and it is poorly understood” by many in Congress.
Now that critics have gotten the attention of Congress, legislators need to go back to the drawing board, Smith said. “This is not the time for one side to declare victory.”
Protecting intellectual property rights globally will require protracted efforts with multiple international partners who have differing law enforcement systems and standards for protection. Creating a framework for IP protection will be difficult, but he said legislators should resist the temptation to take a shortcut with technically flawed legislation.
Smith called the online campaigns that halted the current legislation part of the evolution of American politics that dates back to the printing press and the invention of radio and television.
“It gives the potential for every citizen to be involved and make their feelings known,” he said. It will not necessarily eliminate corporate lobbying or special interests, but “you are going to see more retail politics in America,” which will not be a problem. “America does very well with retail politics.”
William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.