The House Judiciary Committee abruptly adjourned today without completing work on the Stop Online Piracy Act, an unexpected twist in the high stakes battle between Hollywood content providers and leading Internet companies.
The committee’s chairman and chief sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), agreed to further explore a controversial provision that lets the Attorney General order changes to core internet infrastructure in order to stop copyright infringement.
Smith said the hearing would resume at the “earliest practical day that Congress is in session.” That could be weeks.
The abrupt halt to Friday’s proceeding, which followed a marathon-long, 11-hour hearing Thursday, was based on a motion from Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). He urged Smith to postpone the session until technical experts could be brought in to testify whether altering the internet’s domain-naming system to fight websites deemed “dedicated” to infringing activity would create security risks.
Just yesterday, Smith said that was not necessary, despite a signed letter by many of the internet’s core engineers saying the bill’s approach was technically flawed.
You have to understand that the pro-SOPA forces had been steamrolling opponents throughout this markup. Every amendment designed to water down or reform the proposed law was defeated by a bipartisan group of about 22 of the 34 members of the committee. Smith could have easily passed the bill today.
So what happened? It could be, as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Reddit exult in an email to supporters, that “immense public pressure” led to this result. I’m not sure I believe that, although it’s true that hundreds of thousands berated Congress to stop the legislation, which could really degrade the Internet, particularly sites with user-generated content that could be shut down if a user violates a copyright restriction. The other possibility, as Zach Carter intimates, is that the bill now becomes a holiday fundraising bonanza:
“The most troubling dynamic in Congress is the way the agenda itself becomes a tool for fundraising,” notes Harvard University Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig. “Dramatic fights over billion-dollar industries are exactly what legislators want going into an election year, because it flushes money into their pot. ”
And SOPA is precisely one of those issues. Smith did not need to delay the vote in order to round up additional support to ensure passage. The House Judiciary Committee has close ties to Hollywood and is strongly supportive of the bill. Smith wrote the legislation, and over the past two days, the committee shot down amendments to weaken or moderate provisions of the legislation by wide margins.
“Congress benefits from keeping us all in suspense,” noted Gabriela Schneider, spokesperson for the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to government transparency. “Those special interests who have a stake in it are … contributing directly to campaigns, and this gives them more time to do it.”
That said, the activist community’s strategy was to delay this bill and push it into 2012, a Presidential election year when very little of substance should get done in Congress. So this is definitely a temporary victory for them. Plus, the ability for expert witnesses to testify on the Internet security consequences, as well as the continued activism, could change some minds among supporters in Washington.
There is no new date set by HJC to take up the bill.