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In the last 30 days, there has been a loud and clear backlash against two bills – SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act). SOPA is the House version of the bill; PIPA is the Senate version of the bill. For starters, I must emphasize that I agree that online piracy is a real problem — and, as an author, I deal with it all of the time — and that it is important to look for appropriate solutions.
Unfortunately, these bills, both in their substance and, significantly, the process by which they have moved along, fail this test. As such, they reveal a disturbing picture about the policy process in Washington, D.C. and threaten to create significant and unintended consequences if they are passed. And their passage was a real possibility before the tech and entrepreneurial communities spoke up.
The problems with these bills have been well-documented. I leave to others to discuss just how and why provisions authorizing a private right of action, or that leave an overly broad definition of affected websites, pose a threat to innovation and free speech. Rather than try to describe these problems, I’d like to explore what’s going on behind the scenes.
The way I see it, SOPA / PIPA is a very simple case of a small, very powerful set of industry incumbents (in this case, certain media companies, led by organizations like the MPAA) trying to use complex legislation to slow down the disruption of their industry. Ultimately, this becomes a debate between the incumbents and the innovators, the old and the new, the disrupted and the disruptors. In such debates, the incumbents tend to prevail, and the voice of the innovators — many of whom are too busy with their companies to focus on Washington or who may not yet exist — are rarely heard.
Talk to your representatives
I first heard about SOPA and PIPA in the fall. I sat down in a quiet space, printed out each bill, and read them carefully. If you’ve ever read a congressional bill, then you know that it’s hard work; they are written in a special version of English that only a lawyer could love (and I’m not a lawyer). As I read them, I got increasingly nauseous. I checked with a few friends who were lawyers to make sure I understood them, and when I did, was appalled. In my least charitable moments, I wondered why our Congress was spending time on this when there are so many more pressing issues for our country to deal with.
I then started exploring how these bills came together. I started by talking to my representative in the house, Jared Polis (D-Colo.). Jared is a very successful Internet entrepreneur (founder of BlueMountainArts.com and Provide Commerce) who has led the charge in the house against SOPA. Jared is one of the few people in Congress who has direct experience with and understanding of the Internet. I then spoke to my Senator, Mark Udall (D-Colo.). Mark just came out against PIPA and, while he is not an Internet entrepreneur, he is a huge believer in innovation and willing to explore, in-depth, the dynamics of legislation regarding innovation.
In each case, the story of how this legislation got this far is distressing. I watched the House Judiciary hearing where the chairman, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who is also the sponsor of SOPA, unilaterally shut down virtually every amendment being proposed to improve SOPA so that it made sense. I then learned that Chris Dodd, a former Senator is now the CEO of the MPAA, which had a deep hand in crafting PIPA. As I dug deeper, the insider game got worse.
Entrepreneurs don’t support it
More distressing, I searched in Colorado in the business and entrepreneurial community for anyone who supported either bill. I could not find anyone. Most people had never heard of either bill (this was last fall) and, when they heard about them, they had the same reaction that I did. So I started speaking out against the bills, publicly, and loudly.
Initially, those promoting SOPA and PIPA responded by being more forceful. The backlash quickly built, and starting in mid-December, the innovation economy and Internet community kicked into full gear decrying these bills in terms ranging from idiotic to unconstitutional. Then the politics really began. The proponents of these bills started referring to them as “jobs bills” and talked about the massive loss of jobs if they were defeated. Senior executives at large media companies forcefully defended the bills and lied about what was in them, and what their impacts would be.
We are now in an untenable situation. Both SOPA and PIPA are toxic. My view is that anyone who supports these bills either doesn’t understand what they are supporting or is simply no friend of innovation. And, if you are no friend of innovation, I can’t support you in any way, as innovation is the lifeblood of our economy, our country, and what I’ve dedicated my life to.
So, let’s call on our Congressmen to stop this nonsense, hit reset, and, if this issue is one that they really want to address, do so in a balanced, thoughtful way. It’s time to bury both SOPA and PIPA, and try again.