SOPA hearings cast debate as old media vs. new media

December 17, 2011

Congressional hearings over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) on Thursday highlighted the controversial nature of the bill. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle criticized each other sharply over differences in opinion on SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), as the bill is known. As Cecilia Kang reported:

In a raucous House debate on Thursday over a bill to stop piracy on the Internet, lawmakers representing the interests of old media and new media drew their swords in passionate attacks and counterattacks over the controversial proposal.

The circus atmosphere of the hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Act, introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), reflected the high-stakes, emotional nature of the debate over how to protect copyrighted movies, songs or books online without trampling on the free speech of individuals and companies.

The measure has been praised by Hollywood titans, pharmaceutical giants and record labels who want stronger enforcement of copyright-infringement laws online. But it has drawn the ire of Silicon Valley types, including founding Internet engineers such as Vint Cerf and Web giants Yahoo and Facebook, who worry that the bill gives law enforcement too much power to shut down their sites.

During the marathon House Judiciary Committee markup of the proposal, known as SOPA, representatives agreed to revisions to better protect U.S. Web sites if they inadvertently host copyrighted movies, songs or books. A similar Senate bill was approved last May in the Judiciary Committee, but analysts said any legislation won’t be considered until next year.

“There is bipartisan support as well as bipartisan opposition,” Smith said in his opening remarks. “I hope we remember we are among Judiciary friends.”

Those words fell on deaf ears.

Critics of SOPA have rallied some of the biggest heavyweights in the technology world, including Google, Facebook and Wikipedia, to join the fight against its passage. As Hayley Tsukayama explained:

As the debate over the markup of the Stop Online Piracy Act continues on Capital Hill, more technology heavyweights are calling for average netizens to register their discontent with the bill. Companies such as Reddit and Wikipedia are redoubling their efforts in opposing the measure, which aims to target online pirates in part by redirecting Web traffic from sites that host pirated content.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Reddit have been pushing a campaign arguing that SOPA, as written, would harm future innovation.

“Big corporations are lobbying Congress to pass a bill that would prevent sites such as Reddit, YouTube, Google or Bit.ly from ever getting off the ground,” the group’s campaign asserts, before issuing a call to have participants calling on their members of Congress to oppose the bill.

Underpinning the argument about the bill’s possible effects on innovation are two open letters to Congress, one sent by the founders of several prominent Web firms, including Google, Twitter, Wikipedia, and the other by engineers who were instrumental in creating the structure of the Internet, The Washington Post reported.

Supporters of the bill say that the measure would not damage the Internet or free speech, though Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) has introduced an amendment to the original bill to address some of these concerns.

In a more drastic measure, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has been discussing the possibility of staging a stunt to pull Wikipedia off the Internet in protest. On a discussion page at Wikipedia, approximately 90 percent of those who’ve weighed in support the temporary blacklist — a tactic the online encyclopedia used to combat an Italian privacy law.

For some the idea that lawmakers, who are not known for their expertise in matters of Internet piracy or copyright law, are deciding important aspects of internet regulation seems odd. As Alexandra Petri wrote in the satire blog, ComPost:

Last night I had a horrifying dream that a group of well-intentioned middle-aged people who could not distinguish between a domain name and an IP address were trying to regulate the Internet. Then I woke up and the Judiciary Committee’s SOPA hearings were on.

It’s exactly as we feared. For every person who appears to have some grip on the issue, there were three or four yelling at him.

“I’m not a nerd,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D- Calif.). “I aspire to be a nerd.”

“I’m a nerd,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

If I had a dime for every time someone in the hearing used the phrase “I’m not a nerd” or “I’m no tech expert, but they tell me . . .,” I’d have a large number of dimes and still feel intensely worried about the future of the uncensored Internet. If this were surgery, the patient would have run out screaming a long time ago. But this is like a group of well-intentioned amateurs getting together to perform heart surgery on a patient incapable of moving. “We hear from the motion picture industry that heart surgery is what’s required,” they say cheerily. “We’re not going to cut the good valves, just the bad — neurons, or whatever you call those durn thingies.”

This is terrifying to watch. It would be amusing — there’s nothing like people who did not grow up with the Internet attempting to ask questions about technology very slowly and stumbling over words like “server” and “service” when you want an easy laugh. Except that this time, the joke’s on us.

It’s been a truism for some time that you can tell innovation in an industry has ceased when the industry starts to develop a robust lobbying and litigating presence instead.

As long as there have been new technologies, the entertainment industry has been trying to get them shut down as filthy, thieving pirates. Video cassettes? Will anyone tune into TV again? MP3 players? Why even bother making a record? Digital video recorder that lets you skip ads? That’s a form of theft!

But SOPA is threatening to touch something far more precious than that — the glorious sprawl of the Internet.

More from The Washington Post

Issa on OPEN Act’s strengths and weaknesses

Alternative online piracy bill expected

Opinion: Overkill on internet privacy

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