Wired is censored today. So is TBogg’s mini-site. The Google doodle is blacked out. And part of Daily Kos. And a lead story at The Huffington Post. And even right here. Sites like Wikipedia and Reddit and I Can Haz Cheezburger and Raw Story and Informed Comment and thousands more are completely dark today, not providing any content. It’s part of the largest online strike in history.
This all protests the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), two dangerous pieces of anti-piracy legislation that would allow for official censorship of Websites through an “Internet blacklist,” and possibly disrupt the very architecture of the Internet. Ron Wyden, who has been against the bill from the beginning, offers a general explanation:
RW: I said, from the beginning, that first, there’s a problem here. There’s no question that people who sell fake Rolexes or tainted Viagra or movies they don’t own are bad actors. Second, there’s a straightforward solution, which is to cut off the money that gets people into piracy. But third, to solve this problem by doing damage to the Internet, which has been a juggernaut for job growth and innovation and free speech, is a mistake. So that was our argument: There’s a problem, there’s a remedy, but you don’t need a cluster bomb to solve it.
The bill would put the burden of proof on the Web site to police its content for copyright or risk being taken down. It would allow for the cutoff of payments and the shutdown of Web sites without a court hearing or a trial. It would give private companies the ability to sue to take down sites they feel violate their copyright. Before last weekend, it would have allowed the Justice Department to require ISPs to block certain domain names, damaging the secure standard of the Domain Name System. The House version of this bill eliminated that provision, but it remains in the Senate version, with Chairman Patrick Leahy – who is very tied in with the entertainment industry – seeking only to “study” the provision before implementation.
Despite a string of victories on the bills over the past several weeks, the grassroots coalition and Internet giants pushing against this bill have not rested. They turned the legislation from inevitable to a situation where House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he would not bring the bill to the floor without “consensus.” But Lamar Smith, the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said he would complete the markup on SOPA in February. And the Senate will still hold a vote on the bill next week. So there’s every reason to garner more attention for this awful piece of legislation, which would for the first time in America censor the Internet in ways that we’ve seen in repressive regimes during the Arab uprising.
The anti-SOPA coalition has already done something special, however. They have moved this bill from inevitable to an open question. And they even got Dianne Feinstein to try and broker a deal:
In December, HuffPost reported that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a Protect IP co-sponsor with deep ties to both Hollywood and the technology industry, thought disputes between two of her most prominent corporate constituencies had been worked out. After that story ran, Feinstein attempted to broker a compromise, calling both tech companies and film studios.
Walt Disney Co. President and CEO Bob Iger declined the invitation on behalf of content providers. “Hollywood did not feel that a meeting with Silicon Valley would be productive at this time,” said a spokesperson. The meeting took place with only tech companies present. Feinstein, once a reliable vote for the existing version of Protect IP, is now working hard to amend the bill, according to Senate Democratic aides.
But finding common ground is more difficult in this case than in most intra-corporate squabbles, because the two sides — or powerful elements within them, at least — have largely irreconcilable world views. One senior Senate aide said that the technology side consistently refuses to specify precise changes they want to the bill. Indeed, improving the bill would be counterproductive if the ultimate goal is killing it outright — which it certainly is for many elements of the anti-SOPA coalition.
“That’s a high-stakes risk,” said the senior aide, “because if they don’t have 41 votes, then what?”
DiFi isn’t the only Senator wavering. Ben Cardin, a co-sponsor, now opposes PIPA (the Senate version of the bill) in its current form. Jeff Merkley and Mark Udall and Scott Brown came out against it. Harry Reid doesn’t want to move the initial cloture vote, set for next Tuesday, but at this rate, it may not get the 60 votes needed to advance. And even if it does, Wyden and Sen. Jerry Moran plan to spend hours in a “talking filibuster” discussing the dangers of the bill on the Senate floor.
By taking down or “censoring” their sites, the groups involved ask their audiences to call Congress and stop the legislation. This is a left-right, transpartisan coalition, best exemplified by Vote for the Net, a partnership between Demand Progress and former Democratic Congressional candidate David Segal, and Don’t Censor the Net and former RNC media director Patrick Ruffini. They have over 33,000 names on this pledge:
In 2012, I will only support candidates who stand for Internet freedom and who oppose the PROTECT IP Act and SOPA. I will work against any candidate, of any party, who votes to censor and stifle the Internet.
They are also collecting donations for the first four Senators who vowed to fight the anti-piracy bills: Wyden, Moran, Rand Paul and Maria Cantwell. Of the four, only Cantwell faces re-election this year.
Online activism has foundered somewhat in the post-Obama era. But this push to stop these anti-piracy bills, bringing together the innovation of the Internet with the force of grassroots organizing, have set a model for how to do 21st-century politics. Of course, having a clutch of massive Internet sites on your side doesn’t hurt.