Coming into 2012, the Internet community was looking down the barrel of very dangerous legislation that would have created legal structures to silence legitimate speech in the name of curbing online “piracy.” A House bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate counterpart, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), had been debated, amended, and looked to be on the fast track for legislative approval.
That all changed on January 18. An historic “Blackout Day” protest, loosely coordinated by a coalition of public interest groups, startups, tech companies, and thousands of different websites, resulted in millions of emails and tens of thousands of calls to legislators. As sites across the web turned out their virtual lights at once, an important but otherwise arcane copyright bill became front-page news—and impossible for the content lobby and their favorite legislators to sneak past the public.
There were plenty of reasons to be concerned. After all, Congress has passed 15 laws aimed at stopping “piracy” over the last 30 years—an impressive record given the general absence of actual facts about the problem or the effectiveness of the proposed solutions. And even after an earlier protest, held in November 2011, resulted in nearly 90,000 calls to Congress in one day, SOPA’s author (and Judiciary Committee chair) Lamar Smith seemed intent on pushing the bill through, dismissing the complaints as not being “legitimate.”
But support for the bills began to crumble when met with the magnitude of the blackout protests. Over the course of January 18, people sent nearly a million emails to their legislators through the EFF’s action center alone, and many million more through other sites. Some of the most popular sites on the Internet, like Google, Reddit, and Wikipedia, were among over 100,000 pages dark in protest.
It worked. Angry supporters of the bill may have derided the grassroots action—MPAA chief Chris Dodd called it “dangerous” and a “gimmick,” while RIAA CEO Cary Sherman said it was based on “misinformation” and, strangely, a “misuse of power”—but legislators got the message, and began jumping ship from SOPA and PIPA almost immediately. Within a month, the bills were effectively dead.
The defeat of SOPA and PIPA marked an important victory in an ongoing struggle for copyright policy that’s based on actual facts and real evidence. The January 18 protests, too, served as a template for a new era of online activism. In 2012, we’ve already seen similar battles play out all over the world; in 2013, we’re sure to see even more.
- U.S. Congress may not have stomach for another SOPA/PIPA fight (pcworld.com)
- Looking forward: The fight for Internet freedom (rappler.com)
Even after millions rallied against the passage of SOPA/PIPA, the House is still quietly trying to pass a related bill that would give the entertainment industry more permanent, government-funded spokespeople. The Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee recently held a hearing on Lamar Smith’s IP Attaché Act (PDF), a bill that increases intellectual property policing around the world. The Act would create an Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property, as well as broaden the use of IP attachés in particular U.S. embassies. (The attachés were notably present in Sec. 205 of SOPA—which was also introduced by Smith.)
The major issue with this bill—and all similar bills—is that the commissioning of people in the executive branch who are solely dedicated to “intellectual property enforcement” caters to Big Content. The IP attachés are charged with “reducing intellectual property infringement” and “advancing intellectual property rights” around the world, but not to critically engage IP complexities and limitations. From our perspective, this bill is nothing more than the government giving Hollywood traveling foot soldiers.
The presence of people with such a narrow cause as “intellectual property enforcement” fosters a single perspective in the federal government. In an environment where the deep-pocketed copyright lobby is pushing through favorable legislation on both a domestic and international level, this is the last thing we need. As Techdirt and Public Knowledge rightly state: trying to squeeze bits of SOPA past the people—the same people who rejected the bill earlier this year—is an awful idea.
- SOPA Critics Cry Foul Over IP Attache bill (techdailydose.nationaljournal.com)
- SOPA Lives! New Bill Seeks to Resurrect Expansion of IP Enforcement Powers (readwriteweb.com)
- SOPA architect now pushing for “IP Attaché” legislation (arstechnica.com)
- Lamar Smith Looking To Sneak Through SOPA In Bits & Pieces, Starting With Expanding Hollywood’s Global Police Force (informationliberation.com)