Internet's dark day: Anti-piracy bills take a beating

By:  Staff Writer
Source: The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — Support for a pair of anti-piracy bills unraveled Wednesday amid an Internet blackout and huge public backlash, perhaps giving fresh traction to competing legislation co-sponsored by Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell.

Howls erupted from the Twitter-verse when the English version of Wikipedia, the free, collaborative Web encyclopedia and homework crutch of students everywhere, shut down. Google and Facebook were up, although Google slapped a big, black bar across its colorful trademark and directed viewers to a petition.

On Craigslist, those looking to search the classifieds had to first read through a note urging them to contact their representatives to block the bills.

The 24-hour blackout and adverse reaction from Internet users was over the right of business — notably Hollywood and the publishing and recording industries — to make a profit on its work, versus maintaining free and open access to the Internet.

Two bills, the House's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate's Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), would attempt to stop illegal downloading and sharing of copyright material. Opponents claim the measures would stifle innovation, limit service and impel companies to monitor users.

A third bill, the Senate's Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN), authored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and co-sponsored by Cantwell, aims for middle ground by putting enforcement in the hands of the International Trade Commission, a quasi-government agency that already investigates counterfeit imports and trade-secret violations.

More than 4.5 million people signed their names to the Google petition and 300,000 people emailed or called lawmakers, according to the protest organizers. In Seattle, New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas, protesters held rallies to draw attention to the bills. The Library of Congress said late Wednesday that it had been hit with a denial-of-service attack by "a group opposed to the online piracy legislation."

One by one, prominent backers of the original House and Senate bills dropped off.

First, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., took to Facebook to renounce PIPA, which he had co-sponsored. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who leads the GOP's Senate campaign efforts, used Facebook as well to urge colleagues to slow the bill down. Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican and tea-party favorite, announced his opposition on Twitter, already boiling over with anti-#SOPA and #PIPA fever.

Trickle then turned to flood — adding Republican Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Orrin Hatch of Utah, John Boozman of Arkansas and Chuck Grassley of Iowa and GOP Reps. Lee Terry of Nebraska and Ben Quayle of Arizona. In all, at least 10 senators and nearly twice that many House members announced their opposition.

Washington reaction

The backlash also forced several Washington state lawmakers to stake out a position. Reps. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, and Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, issued statements Wednesday opposing SOPA. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, tweeted his opposition as well.

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, posted his opposition to the bill on his Facebook page Tuesday.

A spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she has "concerns with these bills as currently drafted."

How many websites joined Wednesday's protest was unclear. One estimate said 10,000, but that could have been wishful thinking.

Reddit, the popular social news site, went dark. So did MoveOn.org, WordPress and Mozilla, which operates the Web browser Firefox. Like Wikipedia, they directed viewers to information about the pending legislation.

In a statement posted to his public Facebook profile, co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the bills "get in the way of the Internet's development." Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt encouraged his followers on Twitter to sign Google's petition against the bills, calling on them to "Defend the Web!"

"The Internet has injected itself into the very fabric of society," said Zac Cohn, 23, who works with a Seattle-based Internet startup company and who passed out fliers Wednesday at a protest in the city. "It feels like you're fighting the future if you're trying to regulate the Internet like this."

Censorship issue

Cantwell and Wyden, who has blocked PIPA from reaching the Senate floor, have claimed the OPEN Act avoids potential online censorship that could do "massive damage to the Internet." But entertainment companies and others who support PIPA and SOPA have questioned whether the Wyden bill offers adequate enforcement teeth. Technology and Internet companies, on the other hand, said they haven't had time to study it.

Jay Walsh, Wikimedia Foundation spokesman, said the foundation doesn't have a position on Wyden's bill. "Honestly," he said, "the focus right now is on the threat: SOPA/PIPA."

Microsoft, which opposes SOPA and PIPA in their current forms, declined to comment on the OPEN Act.

Ben Huh, CEO and founder of the Cheezburger network of humor sites, said the OPEN Act is "pretty good" — except for one provision he strongly dislikes. The measure would accomplish what supporters of SOPA and PIPA seek in terms of preventing copyright infringement, Huh said. What he doesn't like is a provision that grants legal immunity to any company that's in a business relationship with another and wants to cut off the relationship because of suspected copyright infringement. "If you supply advertising to my site," Huh said, "and if you believe I fall under the OPEN Act as a violator, you can sever the business relationship. I have no recourse."

That kind of "blanket immunity," he said, "is ripe for abuse." Still, Huh said he's "cautiously optimistic" the immunity provision can be fixed.

Protest a "gimmick"

The Motion Picture Association of America called Wednesday's blackout a "gimmick" and said "business interests are resorting to stunts to punish their users or turn them into corporate pawns."

But Hollywood, a powerful player in Washington, D.C., suddenly had competition.

Yochai Benkler, a co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, said the blackout showed not only that tech companies had become influential but also that they now recognized they had to work with Congress instead of around it.

He said the day also showed that the tech community and everyone who relied on it could form a potentially daunting alliance.

"Today was a very strong public demonstration to suggest that what historically was seen as a technical system of rules that only influences the content industry has become something more," Benkler said. "You've got millions of citizens who care enough to act. That's not trivial."