Web protests piracy bills, and senators change course

The New York Times reports: Online protests on Wednesday quickly cut into Congressional support for online antipiracy measures as lawmakers abandoned and rethought their backing for legislation that pitted new media interests against some of the most powerful old-line commercial interests in Washington.

A freshman senator, Marco Rubio of Florida, a rising Republican star, was first out of the starting gate Wednesday morning with his announcement that he would no longer back antipiracy legislation he had co-sponsored. Senator John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who heads the campaign operation for his party, quickly followed suit and urged Congress take more time to study the measure, which had been set for a test vote next week.

By Wednesday afternoon, Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah and one of the Senate bill’s original co-sponsors, called it “simply not ready for prime time” and withdrew his support.

Their decisions came after some Web pages were shut down Wednesday to protest two separate bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House, written by Representative Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, drafted by Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Protests organized in the real world drew far less attention. A rally convened in Midtown Manhattan outside the offices of Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, who co-sponsored some of the proposed legislation, drew a few hundred protesters.

Members of Congress, many of whom are grappling with the issues posed by the explosion in new media and social Web sites, appeared caught off guard by the enmity toward what had been a relatively obscure piece of legislation to many of them. The Internet sensibility of the Senate was represented a few years ago in remarks by the late Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, who called the Internet “not a big truck” but a “series of tubes” — an observation enshrined in the Net Hall of Shame.

In reaction to the pending legislation, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia went dark. Google’s home page had a black banner across its home page that led to pointed information blasting the bills.

Such new-media lobbying was having an impact.

“As a senator from Florida, a state with a large presence of artists, creators and businesses connected to the creation of intellectual property, I have a strong interest in stopping online piracy that costs Florida jobs,” Mr. Rubio wrote on his Facebook page. “However, we must do this while simultaneously promoting an open, dynamic Internet environment that is ripe for innovation and promotes new technologies.”

James Allworth and Maxwell Wessel write: SOPA and PIPA are prime examples of big companies trying to do everything they can to stop new competitors from innovating. They’re also examples of how lobbying in the United States has become one of the most effective ways of limiting this sort of competition.

The argument over this legislation has essentially been characterized in the press as having two sides. The first side, which is generally represented by big content, is that piracy (and any new technology that facilitates it) is an existential threat to any business based on intellectual property. That’s actually a line that has been used a few times before — most famously by Jack Valenti, head of the MPAA, when he testified in front of congress that the VCR was to the movie industry what the Boston Strangler was to women.

And on the other side of the argument? Well, they have been mostly characterized as the “technology industries.” They’ve been making the case that SOPA and PIPA will chill innovation and threaten free speech.

But “content” vs “technology” doesn’t do justice to describing the two sides. Tim O’Reilly, the CEO of O’Reilly Media — a very well-known publishing and media company that derives a large portion of its revenue from the sale of books — has been one of the most ardent critics of SOPA and PIPA. On the other hand, GoDaddy.com, the largest of the web’s domain name registrars, was very much in favor of SOPA — at least until a boycott caused them to back down. Similarly, there are plenty of other technology firms that have supported SOPA.

So if “content” vs “technology” doesn’t capture what’s going on in this fight, what does? Well, SOPA makes much more sense if you look at the debate as big companies unwilling to accept change versus the innovative companies and startups that embrace change. And if we accept that startups are created to find new ways to create value for consumers, the debate is actually between the financial interests of “big content” shareholders versus consumer interests at large.

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