Beware Of Zombie PIPA And SOPA
Internet users, rejoice! After months in which it seemed that increasingly outspoken opposition fell upon apparently deaf ears, the battle against the House of Representatives’ Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its counterpart in the Senate, the Protect IP Act (PIPA), finally worked. In quick succession, the Obama administration confirmed its opposition to SOPA, the infamous January 18th blackout dominated the news and major tech players reluctantly walked back their prior expressed support for the bills. When Congress finally killed the bills last Friday, it seemed a mere formality, and served as astonishing proof that our political system isn’t as broken as we often fear.
But as good an excuse to celebrate as the death of SOPA and PIPA is, it’s time to put the champagne glass down. Like recently turned zombies, they’ll be back from the dead sooner than we think, and if the past is any indicator, they’ll be worse than before. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
First, remember that SOPA and PIPA were not the first attempts by Congress to kill the Internet. Numerous prior attempts have been made over the years; in 2010, it was a bill proposed by Patrick Leahy called Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act. That bill contained several disturbing provisions, including a seriously broad definition of “infringement,” a DOJ Internet blacklist and broad DOJ power to take down websites accused of infringing, and technical requirements that would have impacted web security and even the basic architecture of the Internet. It was effectively killed when fellow Democrat Ron Wyden did what Leahy apparently could not – remembered who his actual constituents are – and basically prevented the bill from coming to a full Senate vote at the end of 2010, mostly killing it.
Leahy probably sounds familiar. And he should, because 7 months later, he reemerged as the chief sponsor for PIPA. Undeterred by concerns raised in COICA, he and the Senate Judiciary Committe doubled down, packing PIPA with even worse provisions. They were followed in October, 2011, by SOPA, which has the amazing distinction of being even worse than PIPA, despite there being 4 months’ worth of publicly expressed concerns about the Senate’s bill as the House Judiciary Committee was crafting it. If at first you don’t succeed and all that; rest assured, Congress will. Given Leahy’s apparently neverending desire to pass something like this, and the temporarily shamed bipartisan coalition of congresspeople who share that longing, similar bills are guaranteed.
It’s also important to remember that while we managed to shame them into doing the right thing, our representatives don’t really like having to respond to the public. Even after opposition to these bills began to crystalize with the unveiling of SOPA, the national legislature seemed indifferent to almost all concerns raised. SOPA and PIPA, like COICA before them, were all created with a minimum amount of public scrutiny. Almost no consultation with credible tech experts or actual Internet consumers occurred, though film, tech and music industry lobbyists were hugely involved. It was only when semi-obscure technical problems inherent in SOPA were pointed out to the House judiciary committee in late December, that the committee even considered postponing a scheduled vote. The concerns about SOPA’s nontechnical provisions didn’t even come up at the time.
In fact, things looked extremely grim almost up until the end, which is why it’s especially telling the way that the bills’ congressional supporters have reacted to the effect public opposition had on reluctant congresscritters. Harry Reid offered a terse statement confirming the decision to shutter PIPA that positively drips with contempt, referring to the massive outpouring of opposition as “recent events”. Leahy went one better, issuing a rambling, petty and petulant statement to his Senate website that called PIPA’s defeat a “victory for thieves”, promised that the “Senators who forced this move will look back and realize they made a knee-jerk reaction to a monumental problem”, and all but accused opponents of loving China and Russia more than American jobs.
Simply put, we will almost certainly have to work far harder the next time they try this.