Is the tide shifting on a controversial bill that would give the government and copyright holders broad new powers to stop online piracy?
Over the weekend, the White House signaled that it has strong reservations about the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act, which is pending in theU.S. House of Representatives. On Tuesday, a congressman from Connecticut said Congress ought to scrap the bill and start from scratch.
On Wednesday, for the entire 24-hour period, the popular user-generated online encyclopedia Wikipedia was to shut down its English-language site in protest, and Google was planning to display an anti-SOPA message on its website. A number of other sites, including Reddit and Boing Boing, were also planning to go dark for the day.
The bill, along with similar legislation pending in the Senate, aims to address Internet piracy. It is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and entertainment industry groups — chiefly the Motion Picture Association of America, which argues that online piracy hurts American companies and costs jobs. The MPAA is led by former ConnecticutSen.Christopher J. Dodd.
But critics of the measure say it would stifle the free exchange of information on the Internet by giving the government the power to block websites that post content protected by copyright. (Under current law, companies such as Google and Wikipedia aren't required to police their sites.)
The White House said any legislation must be narrowly directed to protect the openness of the Internet. Rep. Joe Courtney agrees.
"Online piracy is a serious problem that must be addressed, but doing so should not muzzle free speech, stifle innovation or harm cybersecurity,'' Courtney, D-2nd District, said in a statement. "SOPA as it exists today fails that standard, and it should be scrapped entirely. An ax instead of a scalpel, this bill would unacceptably and fundamentally change the architecture of the Internet. The Judiciary Committee should start from scratch and craft a solution that ensures due process from a public entity that resolves infringement issues."
Courtney isn't the only member of Congress expressing reservations about the bill. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, believes the measure is "well-intentioned,'' said his spokeswoman Elizabeth Kerr. However, she added, Himes also thinks more needs to be done "to ensure that this legislation does not expose companies to new liabilities, infringe upon Americans' First Amendment rights, or threaten the vitality of the Internet."
Reps. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, and Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd Disrict, said the bill merits more study.
"I'm actively following this issue as it moves through Congress,'' said Murphy, who is running for U.S. Senate. "While legitimate concerns have been raised about the bill as introduced, my hope is that we can find a balance that provides protection for U.S. intellectual property online while also protecting Internet freedom and innovation."
The state's two senators, Richard Blumenthal and Joseph Lieberman, are both co-sponsors of the Protect IP Act, or PIPA. In a blog post written Friday, Blumenthal reiterates his opposition to SOPA, which he calls "expansive and objectionable."
But the freshman Democrat who occupies the seat previously held by Dodd said he favors PIPA as a "narrower and more reasonable" approach to the issue of online piracy. He said he would oppose any legislation that fails to protect freedom of expression as well as "the essential architecture of the Internet."
Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, is a SOPA co-sponsor and remains one of the bill's most vociferous defenders. He called Wikipedia's decision to go dark on Wednesday "a novel approach to draw attention" to the issue. And he said he hopes the website will work with Congress to find a solution that works for all parties.
"Like the administration, I believe we need to attack this issue with a measured approach that protects American companies while still [ensuring] the free flow of information through the Internet. At its core, that is what SOPA is about: protecting American companies — and American workers — from blatant theft, which I believe most Americans would agree with."
But, Larson said, "legitimate concerns have been raised about the effect this legislation could have on access to the Internet and free speech.
"Let me be clear: I am not for censoring the Internet, and changes to the bill are already being made to help address those concerns. As a user of Pandora and iTunes, I know we can work together to find a compromise that will protect U.S. companies and jobs from piracy while still ensuring full, robust, unbridled access to the Internet," Larson said.
Larson is a close friend and political ally of Dodd's but, like the other members of the Connecticut delegation, he said he has not spoken to Dodd on this issue. Dodd, who left office last January, is prohibited by law from lobbying his former Senate colleagues for at least two years after leaving the chamber; the cooling-off period for lobbying House members is one year.