The furor over controversial anti-piracy legislation reached a climax on Wednesday as Republican lawmakers began disavowing the Stop Online Piracy Act and opponents claimed victory. The activity coincided with street protests and popular websites blocking out parts or all or their homepages.
In major coup for the tech industry, prominent Republican lawmakers like Senators Mario Rubio and Jim DeMint announced they no longer supported the Senate version of SOPA known as the Protect IP Act. When they were introduced in the fall, the bills were championed by both parties as a necessary tool to target “rogue” foreign websites that sell American products. But critics warned the bills went too far by tampering with basic internet elements like domain names and search engines.
In recent weeks, the debate has morphed from a tech industry hobbyhorse into a national story with fevered rhetoric on both sides.
Wednesday began with a split between two titans of conservative media. The lead editorial of the Wall Street Journal (NSDQ: NWS) characterized SOPA opponents as fringe Occupy Wall Street types and claimed that most media outlets supported the bill.
But in a sign of how the day was to unfold, arch-conservative Matt Drudge titled the lead item on his influential Drudge Report “Hands Off the Internet”and linked to the New York Times (NYSE: NYT). The site, which is one of North America’s prime news drivers, followed up with a series of posts cheering SOPA’s decline. Here is a screenshot from this afternoon:
Meanwhile, Political news site Politico reported that “SOPA protest rattles Congress” while real-world demonstrations took place in New York, San Francisco and other places, led by members of the tech communities in those cities.
On Twitter, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg tweeted for the first time in three years to oppose the bill. Google (NSDQ: GOOG) obliterated its logo to call attention to SOPA’s objectors. At the same time, Wikipedia and others sites have darkened their home pages altogether.
The tactics appear to have worked, and at least for now the tech industry has broken the back of SOPA, as is evidenced by the major political back-pedaling from Congress and a new negative tone from the White House.
Wednesday’s events are a political setback for the entertainment industry, which has pushed hard for the legislation. In practice, though, SOPA’s collapse may not matter that much. Copyright owners already have a variety of laws they can use to attack domestic websites that sell counterfeit goods. And in the last year they have enjoyed new success in seizing the domain names of foreign-based websites. This has made it increasingly unlikely that average citizens will turn to so-called ‘rogue’ sites in the first place.
Events are moving too quickly to predict what will happen next. SOPA’s sponsor, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tx) vowed yesterday that the House Judiciary Committee would go-ahead with a planned mark-up of the bill in coming weeks. But that appears unlikely after supporters’ recent defections.
If past lobbying initiatives are any guide, it’s likely that SOPA supporters will lick their wounds and then return with a less ambitious (and probably renamed) bill later this year.
In the meantime, SOPA detractors are enjoying a victory lap in the form of stories like the New York Times’ “A Political Coming of Age for the Tech Industry“