There is a large degree of stagecraft that goes into most congressional hearings, and last week’s hearing by the House Judiciary Committee on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) followed the script closely. Without getting too cynical about it, it seems that rather than providing an opportunity to debate the measure, the purpose of such a hearing is to send a message to the industries involved about just where they stand in the eyes of the committees’ leaders. In this case, the copyright industries stand pretty well, as signaled by the fact that four of the five witnesses who testified were there to support the copyright industries’ position in favor of passing the bill. The technology industry on the other hand, represented by a lone witness from Google, not so much.
In other words, while Internet companies have generally been allergic to all things Washington, they would do well to hear the message being sent.
Apart from the particulars of SOPA itself, which many in the technology community find anathema, these are parlous times for the technology industry in Washington. Major companies like Google and Facebook are facing growing pressure from Congress and federal regulators over their handling of the data they collect on users, as Google found out when it was forced to cop a plea with the Federal Trade Commission over Google Buzz. And as SOPA and its companion bill in the Senate, the PROTECT IP Act, make clear, their handling of copyrighted material on their platforms is once again becoming a heated issue on Capitol Hill.
The newly named head of the Motion Picture Association of America, in fact, former Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, has clearly seized on SOPA and PROTECT IP as potentially important early victories that he can deliver to his new bosses in Hollywood, and he has been going all out to secure their passage.
He has also clearly put a target on Silicon Valley. In a fiery speech to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce last week, Dodd excoriated technology companies for what he claimed is their indifference to copyright piracy.
“Some in the tech community believe that even if their website is being used to house stolen copyrighted content, that’s not their problem,” he said. “Some believe they should be entitled to enjoy revenue they gain in selling advertising on these criminal rogue sites, and have the nerve to call this innovation. The moral failure of these piracy apologists is indeed glaring.”
While Dodd’s rhetoric may be over the top, his message clearly resonates on Capitol Hill, as was clear from last week’s House hearing, while the countervailing message from the technology community is often muddled and muffled.
There are signs, however, that the technology industry is starting to up its game. Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, eBay, AOL, Twitter and other leading technology companies managed to coordinate their message enough to jointly send a letter to the heads of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees last week, spelling out their opposition to SOPA and Protect IP. They also ran the letter in an advertisement in the New York Times.
Additionally, they managed to coordinate their message effectively with outside groups, including both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Tea Party, both of which oppose the bills, albeit for different reasons.
The joint opposition may be having some effect. In the past week, some prominent House Republicans have expressed doubts about SOPA and predicted it wouldn’t pass the full chamber, regardless of what the Judiciary Committee does.
In the end, SOPA may finally give Silicon Valley its soapbox in Washington.