Web Protests Piracy Bills, and Senators Change Course

Jonathan Weisman, New York Times, 01-18-2012

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/19/technology/web-protests-piracy-bill-and-2-key-senators-change-course.html?_r=1&hp

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 anti-Internet piracy 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 that 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, theStop On-line 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 backlash to 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.

The backlash to the pending legislation had caused the online encyclopedia Wikipedia to go dark. Google’s home page had a black banner across its home page that leads 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.”

Mr. Rubio has outsized influence for a junior senator entering his second year in Congress. He is considered a top contender for the vice presidential ticket of his party’s White House nominee this year, and is being groomed by the Republican leadership to be the face of his party with Hispanics and beyond.

Mr. Cornyn posted on his Facebook page that it was “better to get this done right rather than fast and wrong. Stealing content is theft, plain and simple, but concerns about unintended damage to the Internet and innovation in the tech sector require a more thoughtful balance, which will take more time.”

The moves on Capitol Hill came after the White House over the weekend also backed off the legislative effort.

“While we believe that online piracy by foreign Web sites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet,” a White House official said.

With the growing reservations, a bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously and without controversy may be in serious trouble. Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader and Democrat of Nevada, has scheduled a procedural vote on the Leahy version for early next week, but unless negotiators can alter it to satisfy the outraged online world, no one expects it to get 60 votes.

“I encourage Senator Reid to abandon his plan to rush the bill to the floor,” Mr. Rubio wrote. “Instead, we should take more time to address the concerns raised by all sides, and come up with new legislation that addresses Internet piracy while protecting free and open access to the Internet.”

Indeed, a senior Senate Republican leadership aide said the Senate version of the bill was dead in its current form, and bipartisan negotiations had begun to revise it considerably. Senators from both parties want to address the Internet piracy issue, but they acknowledged that issues raised by Google and its online partners will have to be addressed.

At issue is how the bills deal with “DNS filtering.” Web site addresses are converted by the Internet’s domain name server system from typed words into computer language to bring a user to a specific Web site.

The congressional bills would allow the Justice Department to seek injunctions to prevent domestic Internet service providers from translating the names of suspected pirate sites; the legislation would also require search engines such as Google not to display suspected sites on search results. In effect, the bills would make search engines the enforcers of a law they oppose.

Congressional negotiators are looking at radical revisions to the DNS provisions, but lawmakers may decide the resulting legislation is too neutered to pursue, aides from both parties say.

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