Néw Media Protests Demonstrate Impact on US Congress

Google Protest

WASHINGTON, Jan. 18 — Online protests on Wednesday quickly cut into Congressional support for online antipiracy measures as lawmakers abandoned and rethought their backing for legislation that pitted new media interests against some of the most powerful old-line commercial interests in Washington.

A freshman senator, Marco Rubio of Florida, a rising Republican star, was first Wednesday morning with his announcement that he would no longer back antipiracy legislation he had co-sponsored. Senator John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who heads the campaign operation for his party, quickly followed suit and urged Congress to take more time to study the measure, which had been set for a test vote next week.

By Wednesday afternoon, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah and one of the Senate bill’s original co-sponsors, called it “simply not ready for prime time” and withdrew his support.

Their decisions came after some Web pages shut down Wednesday to protest two separate bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act. The Stop Online Piracy Act was written by Representative Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, drafted the Protect Intellectual Property Act.

Protests organized in the real world drew far less attention. A rally convened in Midtown Manhattan outside the offices of Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, who co-sponsored some of the proposed legislation, drew a few hundred protesters.

Members of Congress, many of whom are grappling with the issues posed by the explosion in new media and social Web sites, appeared caught off guard by the enmity toward what had been a relatively obscure piece of legislation to many of them. The Senate’s high-tech expertise was mocked in 2006 after the chairman of the Commerce Committee, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, called the Internet “not a big truck” but a “series of tubes” — an observation enshrined in the Net Hall of Shame.

In reaction to the pending legislation, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia went dark. Google’s home page had a black banner across it that led to information blasting the bills.

Such new-media lobbying was having an impact.

“As a senator from Florida, a state with a large presence of artists, creators and businesses connected to the creation of intellectual property, I have a strong interest in stopping online piracy that costs Florida jobs,” Mr. Rubio wrote on his Facebook page. “However, we must do this while simultaneously promoting an open, dynamic Internet environment that is ripe for innovation and promotes new technologies.”

Mr. Rubio has outsize influence for a junior senator entering his second year in Congress. He is considered a top contender for the vice presidential ticket of his party’s White House nominee this year, and is being groomed by the Republican leadership to be the face of his party with Hispanics and beyond.

Mr. Cornyn posted on his Facebook page that it was “better to get this done right rather than fast and wrong. Stealing content is theft, plain and simple, but concerns about unintended damage to the Internet and innovation in the tech sector require a more thoughtful balance, which will take more time.”

The moves on Capitol Hill came after the White House over the weekend also backed off the legislative effort.

“While we believe that online piracy by foreign Web sites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet,” White House officials said.

With the growing reservations, a bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously and without controversy may be in serious trouble. Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader and Democrat of Nevada, has scheduled a procedural vote on the Leahy version for early next week, but unless negotiators can alter it to satisfy the outraged online world, no one expects it to get 60 votes.

“I encourage Senator Reid to abandon his plan to rush the bill to the floor,” Mr. Rubio wrote on Facebook. “Instead, we should take more time to address the concerns raised by all sides, and come up with new legislation that addresses Internet piracy while protecting free and open access to the Internet.”

Indeed, a senior Senate Republican leadership aide said the Senate version of the bill was dead in its current form, and bipartisan negotiations had begun to revise it considerably. Senators from both parties want to address the Internet piracy issue, but they acknowledged that concerns raised by Google and its online partners would have to be addressed.

At issue is how the bills deal with “DNS filtering.” Web site addresses are converted by the Internet’s domain name server system from typed words into computer language to bring a user to a specific Web site.

The Congressional bills would allow the Justice Department to seek injunctions to prevent domestic Internet service providers from translating the names of suspected pirate sites; the legislation would also require search engines such as Google not to display suspected sites on search results. In effect, the bills would make search engines the enforcers of a law they oppose.

Congressional negotiators are looking at radical revisions to the DNS provisions, but lawmakers may decide the resulting legislation is too neutered to pursue, aides from both parties say.

Support for the legislation on Capitol Hill eroded throughout the day. Another Republican co-sponsor of the Senate bill, Roy Blunt of Missouri, withdrew his support in the early afternoon. Other senators who issued concerns about the legislation as written included Republican Senators Mark Kirk of Illinois and Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Senator Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, had said on Tuesday that he would vote against the measure.

Mr. DeMint called the proposed legislation “misguided bills that will cause more harm than good.”

“In seeking to protect intellectual property rights, we must ensure that we do not undermine free speech, threaten economic growth, or impose burdensome regulations,” he said in a statement.

The media industry has been pushing for a legislative response to online piracy for some time. Groups like the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, as well as giants like News Corporation, are practiced at old-time lobbying — hiring big-name Washington personalities like the former senator Christopher J. Dodd and contributing to campaign funds.

Mr. Dodd, who is now chairman and chief executive of the motion picture association, forcefully denounced the shutdowns in a statement issued on Tuesday.

“Only days after the White House and chief sponsors of the legislation responded to the major concern expressed by opponents and then called for all parties to work cooperatively together, some technology business interests are resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns, rather than coming to the table to find solutions to a problem that all now seem to agree is very real and damaging,” he said.

In the Tea Party era of grass-roots muscle, though, the old school was taken to school, Congressional aides and media lobbyists agree.

“The problem for the content industry is they just don’t know how to mobilize people,” said John P. Feehery, a former Republican leadership aide and executive at the motion picture lobby. “They have a small group of content makers, a few unions, whereas the Internet world, the social media world especially, has a tremendous reach. They can reach people in ways we never dreamed of before.

“This has been a real learning experience for the content world,” Mr. Feehery added.

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