The same group of the world's largest technology companies, including Facebook and Google, that aggressively opposed the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) are now throwing their weight behind the recently released and amicably named alternative: OPEN. After California congressman Darrell Issa, a Republican, and Oregon's senior Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, introduced the new bill last week, civil rights groups seem like they've been too distracted trying to stop SOPA to notice the alternative approach. With good reason, too. On Tuesday, Lamar Smith introduced an updated version of SOPA he hopes will convince enough members of the House Judiciary Committee to send the bill to the Floor this week. Can Google, Facebook and their Silicon Valley friends -- not to mention an endless list of people who work on the Internet and are protesting the bill -- convince Congress to consider OPEN as a compromise, a solution to America's anti-piracy woes? It depends.
So far, it's very clear that tech companies hate SOPA. Until OPEN showed up last week, the only thing they could do about it was yell and scream about that fact. And boy were they boisterous. Indeed, legal experts agreed: SOPA did open a lot of dangerous doors, many of which could lead to the widespread censorship of the Internet. Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe recently even argued recently that the bill violates the First Amendment. Nevertheless, SOPA is still being considered by the House, and while many Reps have stood up in opposition to the bill, it has a fighting chance of moving forward, especially with Smith's update. The changes do make the bill sound less evil. "The proposed changes include: clarifying that the bill is aimed at foreign Web sites, nixing language that would have required redirection from rogue sites, clarifying that service providers don’t need to block subdomains and narrowing the definitions of some key terms in the bill to focus on bad actors," explains Hayley Tsukayama at The Washington Post. But censorship is censorship, maintain its opponents. TechDirt's copyright correspondent Mike Masnick argues against the updated SOPA:
What you get is something a little closer to what PROTECT IP is in the Senate. However, it still is a bill that requires censorship of the American internet for the first time, and which still contains broad definitions that will be abused by rightsholders. This isn't a fix. This is getting rid of the parts that were put in to be sacrificed on purpose, and still having a really bad bill.
Enter OPEN. Unlike SOPA, the new bill does not suggest blocking domains and handing down strict punishments to copyright infringers through the Attorney General. Instead, OPEN sets up a process with several checks and balances that would send copyright infringement claims through the International Trade Commission. In a letter co-signed by Facebook, Google, Twitter, Yahoo and five others, the titans of Silicon Valley propped up the Issa-Markey alternative -- it's called the Online Protection & ENforcement of Digital Trade act, in full. "We commend your effort and look forward to supporting the legislation upon its formal introduction," the letter reads, pointing how the bill's "approach targets foreign rogue sites without inflicting collateral damage on legitimate, law-abiding U.S. Internet companies."
Hollywood predictably disagrees with OPEN's less aggressive approach. After the entertainment industry spent nearly $200 million worth of lobbying in the run up to the anti-piracy debate in Congress, the Motion Picture Association of America has been one of the most vocal supporters of SOPA, and on Tuesday, CEO Senator Christopher Dodd spoke out against the OPEN alternative. "Attacking international content theft is not about restricting speech," Dodd said. "Quite the opposite. Just as the Constitution defends an artist’s right to create, copyright protections defend the artist’s ability to do so." Don't tell that to Tribe, the Constititional law scholar at Harvard who says that SOPA violates Americans' First Amendment rights. This doesn't mean that the OPEN is flawless, though. Tribe's colleague Jonathan Zittrain raised a few concerns last week in an interview with The Atlantic Wire but said that his biggest concern is that Congress has no idea what they were doing. Noting that he hadn't seen any real data-driven research about how to put a stop to piracy, Zittrain told us, "It's one thing to beat the drums about jobs, about piracy. How about let's just figure out how big this problem is? I don't know of any source for that right now."
Inevitably, the fate of SOPA and its sibling OPEN lies in the hands of the House Judiciary Committee. The Go-OPEN train is just leaving the station as the bill's supporters start the gather the 39 votes from committee members it needs to push the bill forward. Smith will get his vote later this week, and in between now and then, we'll learn more about how much the anti-SOPA protests have affected lawmakers' thoughts on the bill. We're sure that the tech companies and civil rights experts alike won't be totally satisfied until SOPA is dead. Until then, feel free to protest your face off.