Web Blackout Opens Eyes
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — who was a co-sponsor of the PROTECT IP Act — became the latest lawmaker Wednesday to pull his support. In the House, Rep. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.), originally a co-sponsor of the Stop Online Piracy Act, pulled his name from the list of sponsors on Tuesday. A spokesman for Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), meanwhile, told the Omaha World-Herald on Wednesday that the congressman is also unable to support SOPA as written.
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The widespread Internet protest is even bringing new Washington voices into the fray. Mostly silent in the debate, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) tweeted Wednesday he doesn’t back the bills.
Just yesterday, Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, to whom Reynolds derisively refers as “Lamar Smith (R-Hollywood), called the strike—or at least Wikipedia’s participation therein—a “publicity stunt” that “does a disservice to its users by promoting fear instead of facts.” But given Congress’s habit of passing overreaching legislation that brings avalanches of unintended consequences, fear is hardly an unreasonable reaction. The thing about laws, particularly (and ironically) laws crafted to address very narrowly defined threats or perceived threats to special interests, is that what their practical effects end up far exceeding the stated intentions of the authors and supporters.
The trouble with SOPA (the almost-dead House bill) and its evil twin PIPA (the pending Senate bill) is that their sometimes vague language permits much greater power to control content than their proponents claim. It would make more sense to enforce the array of copyright laws already on the books than to pass news laws that treat electronic media differently from traditional media. Newspapers wouldn’t tolerate a law allowing the mere allegation of copyright infringement by one of its reporters in a single story to shut down their presses indefinitely. Musicians and recording houses wouldn’t tolerate a law allowing the mere allegation of copyright infringement in one song to stop sales of all their recordings. Yet that’s essentially what SOPA and PIPA say can happen to web sites that are accused of copyright infringement.
But SOPA and PIPA are actually worse, because they require outside parties, such as web hosting services, to remove allegedly offending content or shut down allegedly offending sites operated independently by customers or face penalty themselves. It isn’t hard to imagine that service providers, unable to spend the time and resources required to perform their own investigations and unwilling to risk government sanction, would knuckle under to intimidation rather than stand their ground. The case of Righthaven, a copyright troll founded with the intention of making big money by bullying small independent electronic media users into settling lawsuits the courts have since ruled it had no standing to bring, provides a glimpse of what might happen if similar would-be bullies were explicitly handed the same power by the U.S. Congress.