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Part of the problem is that the vast majority of the public understands little about the proposed legislation, while the vast majority of legislators understand little about the bills' technological implications. From lawmakers confusing IP numbers with individuals to repeated calls for "nerds" to explain the basic workings of the Internet, the hearings surrounding the bills did little to enlighten the public — or to convince the tech-savvy that the legislation would do anything but open Pandora's inbox of unforeseen complications.
In the House, the bill, introduced last year by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), is known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). In the Senate, where Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced it simultaneously, its unwieldy handle is the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).
The closely aligned bills would attempt to squelch copyright infringement for creative works as well as physical goods, like counterfeit pharmaceuticals. As a counterstrike, SOPA and PIPA would create a filtering service that blocks IP addresses for sites accused of posting unlicensed content on blogs and websites. This would prevent Internet users from accessing them, causing the sites in theory to shrivel from neglect.
The bills would also empower the Department of Justice to aggressively track and prosecute offending foreign websites, their supposed targets. The chief difference is that SOPA focuses on Internet service providers to restrict data, while PIPA targets domain-name providers and ad networks. But the desired effect is the same: a crackdown on networks that give away the industry's somethings for nothing.
That sets off warning bells for the bills' most vocal critics, many of them tech companies. As written, they argue, SOPA would effectively "break the Internet" by requiring ISPs and search engines like Google to heavily censor their results. To them, this would destroy the Web's most advantageous characteristic: its freedom. Filtering the Internet's domain name service, they add, would only create the opportunity for government meddling — something like China's much-derided, restrictive "Great Firewall."
Worse, they say, it would greenlight prosecution outside of U.S. jurisdiction via ex parte hearings, in which only one party (i.e. the copyright holder) need appear in court to initiate legal action against a site or an individual (i.e. the pirate). Opponents claim the result would have a chilling effect on free speech, while stifling Internet innovation at our own economic peril.
Supporters, led by the so-called Big Three media companies — Sony, Universal Music Group and Time-Warner — and a cadre of Beltway lobbyists and lawmakers, fired back that the bills were needed to combat the disastrous effects of piracy and file sharing. The Recording Industry Association of America claims these cost the U.S. some 750,000 jobs and billions of dollars in lost revenue. The Motion Picture Association of America estimates the movie industry's piracy-related losses at $58 billion annually.
In January, the din of competing voices reached a crescendo, paradoxically enough, in a note of perfect silence. Less than 48 hours before Kim Schmitz would be arrested, a consortium of high-profile websites (including Wikipedia, Google and the social-media site Reddit) joined in an Internet "black out" protest. Mimicking the gag rule and blindfolding they argued SOPA and PIPA would become, the sites disabled their features and blacked out their logos. They also urged visitors to take up their metaphorical pitchforks and contact their legislators.
The public response was so intense that it paved the way for President Obama to safely chime in on the debate, with only some rhetorical cyber-rattling from media companies as pushback. In response to some 100,000 signatures to an online petition, the Obama administration denounced SOPA and PIPA as legislation that "reduces freedom of expression, increases cyber security risks or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet."
In the end, SOPA was indefinitely shelved before it could even make it out of the House Judiciary Committee. A number of representatives withdrew their support. On Jan. 18, the same day of the blackout protests, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that a vote on PIPA would be postponed until it became something palatable to the American public.
The defeat of SOPA and PIPA — however provisional — may have brought cheers of victory from opponents, but it didn't end the rancor or quell the concerns behind the bills. In the aftermath of the bills' collective failure, Nashville Songwriter Association International executive director Bart Herbison told Music Row magazine that he was disappointed, and accused Google of expressing concerns that "were never accurate to begin with."
"Most of their previously expressed concerns were addressed when key provisions were removed," Herbison said. "Nonetheless, while copyright holders won the debate, we lost in the court of uninformed public opinion. Over the past few weeks this moved from a debate on the issues to a political debate ... and that is when support began to erode. The tech community did a great job of instilling fear and confusion over both bills."
Speaking in January to a gathering of reporters at his local office in the downtown Nashville public library, Cooper maintained that he signed onto the bill mainly to take the copyright-infringement debate public. "The reason I co-sponsored the bill is, and co-sponsorship means, if you understand what that means, it doesn't mean you voted for it," he said. "It means you think it's a subject worthy of serious discussion at a congressional level."
But Julie Samuels, an attorney for the digital rights advocacy nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, says she finds those remarks disingenuous. At least early on in the battle over the bills, she says, she got the sense that a corporate agenda was clearly driving the proceedings, and lawmakers wanted that kept offstage.
"I actually have a really hard time with that, because the one thing we saw, more than anything in the fight over SOPA and PIPA, it was really pushed through without an open discussion at the outset," Samuels says. "It was a backroom deal, there was no one at the table who really understood the technology of the Internet or the potential negative effects of the bill, and I think that was part of the problem."
That much was clear after a series of House Judiciary Committee hearings held throughout the winter revealed the collective ignorance of the nation's elected officials on the technological matters at the heart of SOPA and PIPA.
"I was trying to think of a way to describe my concerns with this bill, but we're going to do surgery on the Internet and we haven't had a doctor in the room telling us how to change these organs," said committee member Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, at a Dec. 15 hearing. "We're basically going to reconfigure the Internet without bringing in the nerds, without bringing in the doctors."
In the media coverage leading up to the January blackout protest, a narrative of congressional technical ineptitude emerged, and in the process the story evolved a new focus: the power of Internet grassroots organizing.
"What we saw in D.C. was that the supporters of SOPA went too far, and they basically awoke a sleeping giant in the tech community at large," Samuels says. "People realized that this bill was being kind of rammed through without an open conversation about what was best for the millions and millions of artists, creators and, frankly, Internet users that it would impact.
"Now we're having a conversation, and this is good, but it took more than introducing that legislation to have that conversation."
Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation contend that at their core, SOPA and PIPA are the latest examples of a sustained legislative effort bankrolled by Big Entertainment. They charge that instead of focusing resources on innovative content delivery services and respecting existing federal law, companies such as Sony, Universal Music Group, CBS Entertainment and Viacom are funneling crates of money to politicians in an effort to put a sleeper hold on the Internet.
They may have a point. Collectively, the television, motion picture and music lobbies have thrown roughly $2 million at the 32 members of Congress who signed onto SOPA. Among those are the bill's two Tennessee co-sponsors, Cooper and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). According to campaign contribution data culled from OpenSecrets, recording industry lobbyists donated $16,300 to Cooper between 2009 and 2011. That made him one of the top three House recipients for money from the recording industry, behind Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who netted $72,350, and Blackburn, who received $38,000 during the same time period.
In all, SOPA's corporate supporters have spent $90 million in their lobbying efforts. Further, according to data compiled by Maplight, "entertainment interest groups that support these bills gave 7.2 times as much ($14,423,991) to members of the U.S. Senate as Internet interest groups that oppose these bills ($2,011,332)."
There is clearly a lot at stake.
For his part, Cooper says the debate has produced "more heat than light." But he maintains that artists need protection from the likes of Schmitz. Hence SOPA, the industry's line of defense against legions of neck-bearded man-children illegally downloading Taylor Swift songs and hentai porn in their parents' basements.
"Some famous people probably don't miss the money, and some not-so-famous people really miss the money," Cooper says. "They were never for taking Napster down or Pirate Bay. Some people are so pure on this side of the issue, they disregard the creative side of the business. ... Looking at it as an economist doesn't help put bread on the table in Nashville, Tennessee. You can be abstract all day long and you'll still have starving songwriters.
"What we need to do is at least [create] a bridge to new business models. Somebody's making money off this. Now, it might be Ukrainian pirates. We'll never get that money back."
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