All across Capitol Hill on Wednesday, members of the U.S. House and Senate were screaming at their legislative directors, demanding to know who the genius was who said it was OK to support the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect-IP Act.
Outside the respective chambers’ Judiciary Committees, most senators and representatives likely had little idea what was in the bills. Insofar as they had thought about them at all, they were told by staff they were about U.S. jobs, most of the campaign cash was coming from the pro-SOPA/PIPA side, and, most vital, nobody important was kicking up much of a fuss in opposition. It would be an easy vote.
Then everything changed. First, on Saturday the White House issued a statement saying President Obama would not sign the bills in their current form, which meant voting on something that was DOA. Then came the Great Blackout, which sent millions of emails, phone calls and petitions flooding into Capitol Hill offices in opposition to the bills. Members’ websites flickered on and off all day as servers strained against the load and switchboards were jammed. Members suddenly found themselves exposed on the wrong side of an issue with nothing to show for their trouble and no political cover.
Members of both sides of the Hill suddenly began to abandon their earlier support for the bills, handing opponents of the bills in the technology community an unprecedented and shocking political victory.
Now comes the hard part. While the blackout has blunted the momentum of SOPA and PIPA, the issue of online piracy has not gone away on Capitol Hill. The original proponents of the bills will be anxious to salvage something from the wreckage, which means revised versions of the bills are certainly forthcoming.
Many erstwhile supporters of the bills who have now come out against them will also be keen to support something they can portray as addressing the problem of online piracy. Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, for instance, signed on early as a sponsor of PIPA, despite his not sitting on the Judiciary Committee, largely because Disney and Universal are major employers in his state, making him highly receptive to their concerns. Rubio has now dropped his support in the face of the blackout, but he will face enormous pressure to support whatever revised bill now emerges.
Even the White House will face pressure, both from longtime Democratic supporters in Hollywood and from Democratic members on Capitol Hill, to get back with the program by supporting some kind of antipiracy legislation this year.
While the revised versions of SOPA and PIPA could turn out to be more palatable than the earlier versions, making them so will require long and sustained pressure and negotiation. The question for the newly empowered IT industry is whether it can translate the momentum of a one-day protest movement into a sustained force on Capitol Hill.
Another challenge facing the IT industry will be maintaining its unity after the flush of success from the blackout wears off and the debate moves forward. Any revised version of SOPA or PIPA, for instance, is apt to look something like the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade (OPEN) Act, which was introduced on Wednesday by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to try to capitalize on the collapse of support for the other bills.
The OPEN Act narrows the scope of SOPA and PIPA by eliminating any requirement that search engines, social networks and web hosting providers cut off access to so-called rogue sites. Instead, orders would be served only on payment processors like PayPal and Visa and online advertising providers to cease doing business with the websites in question.
While that follow-the-money strategy is likely to be appealing to Google, Facebook and other leading opponents of SOPA and PIPA, which would now be off the hook, it means all the enforcement burden in terms of cost and liability would fall on financial intermediaries. Last week, Google and the financial intermediaries were brothers in arms. Whether that alliance holds into the next phase of the battle remains to be seen. Already, PIPA supporters in the Senate are moving to strip out a requirement that search engines block links in search results to sites accused of piracy, for instance. That might satisfy Google and Microsoft, but it does nothing for PayPal.
Stopping SOPA and PIPA for now was an important victory for the IT industry in Washington. But a lot of work remains to turn that victory into an effective political force for the long term.