After several prominent Web sites went dark Wednesday to protest federal legislation aimed at stopping online piracy, support for the House and Senate bills appears to be waning. Here’s a quick rundown on the bills and where they stand in Congress.
What are the bills trying to do? The tech world is well-acquainted with the months-long battle over the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). But many Web users only learned about the bills during the blackout protest by Web sites such as Wikipedia, Reddit and WordPress.
The bills are are intended to narrowly address the problem of piracy on foreign Web sites. They differ slightly, but both measures grant the Justice Department the power to order “information location” services to remove links to Web sites that are suspected of pirating. Proponents of the legislation, including movie studios and recording companies, say that the bill protects American intellectual property and also protects consumers against counterfeit goods.
Critics say that the bills place an unreasonable burden on sites such as Google or Wikipedia to police links from their sites to see if they lead to Web sites flagged for bad behavior. They also argue that asking search engines to remove links from sites marked as being dedicated to piracy could be a threat to free speech. By effectively removing the “roads” to any given Web site by hiding it from search engines, they argue, sites using the material under the rules of fair use could be effectively blocked because a company has complained that doesn’t like what is being done with the copyrighted material. Those concerns are what prompted the Web firms to protest what they say is tantamount to government censorship.
How effective were the protests? The numbers rolling in late Wednesday and Thursday morning indicated that the petitions gathered a lot of steam. Google said that 4.5 million people signed its petition against the measure.
The Wikimedia Foundation, the umbrella organization that includes Wikipedia, announced that more than 8 million U.S. visitors looked up their Congressional representatives through its site. The group estimated that 162 million people saw the blackout landing page, which asked visitors to imagine “a world without knowledge.”
The Fight for the Future nonprofit organization, which was behind the overall Web movement, reported Wednesday that it had logged 300,000 e-mails to members of Congress and counting.
PIPA support shrinking fast: According to a whip count from OpenCongress.org, 39 senators have said they either have serious concerns about the legislation or will not support the Protect IP Act. This total includes several of the bill’s 40 co-sponsors, such as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Senate Judiciary staff said Thursday that PIPA sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is continuing to work on how to address the problem of online infringement and piracy.
The bill is coming up for a cloture vote on Tuesday. A vote for cloture would allow the Senate to bypass a filibuster.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who placed a hold on PIPA when it was passed through committee in May, has long planned to try to filibuster the bill. On Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said that he would also attempt a filibuster, citing concerns that Web sites could be shut down without being given their due process.
SOPA support: House members have also been backtracking on SOPA, and on Wednesday Reps. Tim Holden (D-Pa.), Lee Terry (R-Neb.) and Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) withdrew their co-sponsorship of the bill.
In response, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), a sponsor of the bill, said that he is “confident that facts will overcome fears” about SOPA and that he is open to “constructive suggestions that protect American inventors and intellectual property rights holders.”
The House Judiciary committee plans to resume markup on the bill in February.