In what looks like a victory for the grassroots anti-Internet censorship coalition, the sponsors of two bills moving through Congress, PIPA (Protect IP Act) in the Senate and SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) in the House, have agreed to remove or water down controversial provisions that would require ISPs to block domain names that engage in IP theft or piracy.

Where this lies between removing and watering down explains how momentous this is. In the Senate, Patrick Leahy, the lead sponsor of PIPA, announced he would delay implementation of DNS blocking (DNS stands for Domain Name System), subject to a future study. Why should Congress pass a law where the key provision gets further study? Lamar Smith, the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee and the author of SOPA, who also happens to be a copyright violator on his House website, did not play such games. He fully removed the DNS blocking provision:

“After consultation with industry groups across the country, I feel we should remove Domain Name System blocking from the Stop Online Piracy Act so that the Committee can further examine the issues surrounding this provision,” Smith, the bill’s author, said in a statement. “We will continue to look for ways to ensure that foreign Web sites cannot sell and distribute illegal content to U.S. consumers.”

SOPA targets “rogue” overseas Web sites that traffic in illegal goods, from fake purses to prescription drugs. It would allow the Department of Justice to obtain court orders to go after these Web sites and, before today, would have required ISPs to block sites with infringing content. Detractors, however, were concerned that the bill was too broad and would’ve targeted legitimate sites.

Though DNS blocking will be removed, SOPA will still allow officials to “follow the money” and cut off payment options to foreign illegal sites, like credit-card processing or PayPal accounts. Search engines like Google and Bing would also still be required to remove infringing Web sites from their search results. Copyright holders could also still bring claims against foreign Web sites that steal their technology, products, or IP.

As you can see, there are still plenty of ways to extend censorship across the Internet using these tools, so I suspect that the coalition trying to block SOPA and PIPA altogether will not be satisfied by this. Several major websites plan to go dark on January 18 to call attention to SOPA and push their opposition into the spotlight. I don’t see how this announcement will change anything.

But this does show you that Smith and Leahy are on the run. They were handed marching orders from copyright-holding corporations – the music and film business, basically – to do their bidding. When technology companies saw the danger inherent in the legislation, they fought back, with the help of a grassroots army. And now Smith and Leahy are bargaining, trying to change the law here and there, even as the opposition picks off individual lawmakers and former supporting companies.

This does represent progress for the coalition, but ultimately, they want to stop this bill cold. Today’s action shows how that can happen.

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