Updated (6:00 p.m.): Members of the House Judiciary Committee decided on Friday to table the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) until 2012 -- however, in a somewhat sneaky last minute move, Rep. Lamar Smith scheduled an early morning hearing on Wednesday to try one more time to push the bill through. Citing the need for more research into the issue and the potential effects of a law with such radical as this one, the bill's opponents pleaded for more time at Friday's hearing. "This bill is not ready for prime time," said Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican. "First of all, we haven't heard from the scientists. We haven't done our due diligence." Rep. Jason Chaffetz from Utah, also a Republican suggested emphatically, "Bring in the nerds!" As we pointed out in our earlier discussion, the hearings suffered from a lack of data and over representation from the SOPA advocates, the majority of whom came from the entertainment industry.
The committee will reconsider the bill in 2012. Until then, happy holidays, geeks!
While it's easy to paint the tabling of the debate as a win for for the opponents of SOPA, the efforts of the bill's supporters are relentless. In a last minute move on Friday afternoon, House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith scheduled an unexpected hearing at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, December 21 to continue marking up the bill, according to an email obtained by The Atlantic Wire. This contradicts earlier reports that the bill wouldn't be reconsidered for weeks, giving ample time for research. The Guardian reported:
But Sopa isn't dead. Smith said the hearing would resume at the "earliest practical day that Congress is in session." With the Christmas holidays coming, the next hearing will be weeks away at the earliest and with the 2012 election looming it will become increasingly difficult to schedule an early vote.
But that's now not entirely true. It's unclear if the Wednesday's hearing will actually take place, but it's scheduled and SOPA's the only thing on the agenda. We'll continue following the story.
Original Story: Thursday's much anticipated, widely watched SOPA hearing lasted 12 hours -- 12 terrible hours of several of the nation's most powerful people pulling on the levers that control the Internet while admitting they don't really know how the Internet works. In the end, not a single meaningful amendment was passed, and pending a second round of marking up the bill on Friday, it looks like the version SOPA that's been called "unconstitutional" by more than one legal scholar is on its way to the floor, relatively unchanged. The bulk of the debate largely resembled any other debate in a House committee chamber: talking into microphones, shuffling papers, parsing through parliamentary procedure. But in the end, a couple of troubling exchanges suggest that lawmakers would rather just pass the bill and go home for Christmas than rigorously review the public's concerns. These moments in mind, Darrell Issa, a Republican from California and the co-author of an alternative bill called OPEN that's been widely hailed as a more reasonable approach to stopping online piracy, finally admitted defeat on Friday. "It's become clear we’re going to lose and lose in the worst way possible," Issa said. "We're going to lose without deference to the facts."
The first exchange involves Sheila Jackson Lee, the "meanest" member of Congress (pictured above). For an appalling 20 minutes or so, the hearing was derailed by a single tweet. Steve King, a über conservative Republican from Iowa, must have been getting hungry around lunch time, when he decided share some thoughts with his Twitter followers, "We are debating the Stop Online Piracy Act and Shiela Jackson [sic] has so bored me that I'm killing time by surfing the Internet," reads the tweet. After seeing King's statement, Jackson let the entire committee know that she did not appreciate being called boring and expressed her outrage in saying how inappropriate it was "to have a member of the Judiciary committee be so offensive." On Twitter.
What followed was less frustrating than it was perplexing. Wisconsin Republican F. James Sensenbrenner asked that the word "offensive" be stricken from the record; committee chairman and SOPA champion Lamar Smith, another Texas Republican, determined that it did violate House rules. (You're not supposed to say unbefitting things on the record.) Jackson refused to formally withdraw the comment, making a big fuss of it. (It was Washington magazine that once named Jackson the "meanest" member of Congress, CNET's Declan McCullah points out in his coverage of the event.) Back and forth, back and forth, until ultimately, Jackson agreed to let the single word "offensive" to be stricken and subsituted "impolitic and unkind" in its place. Let's remind you that the entire thing was playing out as thousands watched on the live stream of the hearing and at least many took to Twitter to yell about how ridiculous the whole affair was. One of our followers asked us, "Did you see the part where Rep. Waters told everyone to just shut up and pass it? I started drinking at about that point…"
We have to assume this kind of thing happens all the time in Congress, but the specifics of the exchange point to a broader idea. It's less that the spat itself threatens to allow SOPA to pass unchallenged but rather the attitudes that it reveals. In a way, it relates to an even more troubling conclusion about the lawmakers' digital maturity. Sheila Jackson clearly does not understand that trolling is best left unaddressed. Maybe that's too nuanced, but it reminds us of some other anxiety-inducing statements that the committee members made about the Internet. Alexandra Petri calls the hearings "nightmarish" in her Washington Post column and describes a second troubling exchange:
It’s exactly as we feared. For every person who appears to have some grip on the issue, there were three or four yelling at him.
"I'm not a nerd," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D- Calif.). "I aspire to be a nerd."
"I'm a nerd," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
If I had a dime for every time someone in the hearing used the phrase "I'm not a nerd" or "I'm no tech expert, but they tell me . . .," I’d have a large number of dimes and still feel intensely worried about the future of the uncensored Internet.
Ugh. While it's good to know that we have one self-identified nerd (three cheers for Darrell the Dweeb!) we wonder if the members debating this bill actually understand how the Internet works at all. So does Petri and uses a haunting analogy to portray why:
If this were surgery, the patient would have run out screaming a long time ago. But this is like a group of well-intentioned amateurs getting together to perform heart surgery on a patient incapable of moving. "We hear from the motion picture industry that heart surgery is what’s required," they say cheerily. "We’re not going to cut the good valves, just the bad -- neurons, or whatever you call those durn thingies."
This is terrifying to watch. …
It totally is! Just like the 20 wasted minutes that Jackson spent complaining about Stephen "Twitter Troll" King -- and let's be fair: 20 minutes is a drop in the bucket for the 12-hour-long hearing -- worrying about whether the members of the Judiciary committee undertand how well SOPA would work in combatting privacy versus is peanuts compared to crying yourself to sleep over the extent to which these lawmakers don't even understand how the Internet works. Elizabeth Stark, an Internet law expert tweeted a telling image near the end of the hearing. "Our politicians' understanding of the Internet…"
We're not saying that all of the members of the House Judiciary Committee are complete digital luddites, but other legal scholars do not seem very encouraged. We recently spoke to Jonathan Zittrain, a professor and cofounder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, who maintains a number of deep concerns about the implications of SOPA, and while he's been outspoken elsewhere about the specific line items within the bill that frighten him, he told The Atlantic Wire that he was basically confused about why Congress hasn't done any real data-driven research into the problem of online piracy. "I would like to find a well-researched, peer-reviewed, credible study about the dimension of the problem this is trying to solve," Zittrain said, noting that he did not know of such a study -- and since he wrote the book on the future of the Internet, he would know if one existed. "It's costless to the aggrieved industries, so why not do it?"
Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to Rep. Darrell Issa as a Democrat from Oregon. Issa is in fact a Republican from California. Rep. Ron Wyden, the member who co-authored OPEN with Issa, is a Democrat from Oregon.