The latest grumblings (or lack thereof) from the lawmakers on Capitol Hill suggest that they're coming around to the idea that the latest anti-piracy efforts in the House and the Senate might've been a little hasty. Patrick Leahy, a senator from Vermont who co-authored the PROTECT IP anti-piracy bill, posted a press release on Thursday, confessing that his legislation needed "more study" before implementation. It's a sure sign that's he's starting to cave to political pressure -- much of which is coming from the unexpectedly increasingly politically powerful Reddit -- and other lawmakers could follow suit.
Then again, they could not. Take Lamar Smith, the Texas congressman who authored the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which is the House's more incendiary and more draconian version of the Senate's PROTECT IP. News broke on Thursday that Smith himself engaged in some questionable copyright practices in building his personal website. The Texas congressman had used a photo that he didn't necessarily have the right permissions for, and in an unapologetic report, Vice's Jamie Lee Curtis Taete put him on the spot with a report unapologetically titled "The Author of SOPA Is a Copyright Violator." The photo thing was a small thing by any measure and probably not something that would get the man thrown in jail. But nobody likes a hypocrite.
Smith isn't sorry about what he did. In a Reuters interview published a few hours after Vice's somewhat sensational scoop, Smith vowed not to back down and even questioned how or why his colleagues would listen to what can only be described as a deafening protest against Congress's anti-piracy legislation. "It is amazing to me that the opponents apparently don't want to protect American consumers and businesses," Smith said. "Are they somehow benefitting by directing customers to these foreign websites? Do they profit from selling advertising to these foreign websites? And if they do, they need to be stopped. And I don't mind taking that on."
Well, Lamar Smith, the Internet does mind your taking that on. We're not just talking about Reddit, either. Pretty much every major American tech company has stepped forward to protest the current version of SOPA, warning how it stands to quell innovation (read: kill jobs) despite Smith's past arguments that SOPA is a job-saving bill. Indeed it would help the entertainment industry to lock in more profits, but it would also change the architecture of the open web, opening the door to government censorship and possibly shutting down popular sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, some say. Along those lines, legal scholars -- including one well known Harvard Law professor Lawrence Tribe -- have called the bill unconstitutional, an assault on Americans' First Amendment rights. The Senate's PROTECT IP is, in many ways, a watered down version of SOPA, but it's also a bill that aim to solve a problem that Congress has more or less admitted it doesn't understand. So it's not a surprise at all that Senator Leahy would blink when confronted with the challenge of pushing the legislation forward. It remains surprising that Smith won't back down.
Earlier this week, Politico floated a hypothesis: "SOPA becoming election liability for backers." (That's inside-the-Beltway headline speak for "Americans appear to hate SOPA, politicians appear to start listening.") At the time, it seemed almost speculative to say that folks like Leahy or Smith would listen to the web's collective outrage about the laws and change their stances on the legislation. After all, it is an election year. So far SOPA's made a villain out of at least one politician, quite randomly. Paul Ryan is not the SOPA proponent that Smith is, but in an attempt to flex their crowd-powered muscle, Reddit decided to go after Ryan and helped raise thousands of dollars for his opponent's campaign. After Reddit's initial threat, Ryan's office denied that he supported the bill. But the damage was done.
What happens next depends on a number of factors. For PROTECT IP, a judgment day is peeking over the horizon in the form of a procedural vote scheduled for January 24. For SOPA, a hearing is scheduled for next Wednesday, during which a number of Internet experts (read: huge nerds) will testify, we predict, in strong opposition to the bill before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, of which outspoken SOPA opponent Rep. Darrell Issa is the chairman. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian is one of the scheduled witnesses, and in solidarity with his vocal protest against the legislation, the link-sharing site will go dark for 12 hours. Other websites, like all of the meme-tastic Cheezburger blog network will follow suit.
It's unclear what's next for Smith and the House Judiciary Committee, where most of the hearings on SOPA have taken place. So far, he's not blinking like his colleagues and contradicting the many statements made by job-creating tech industry leaders. "There are some companies like Google that make money by directing consumers to these illegal websites," Smith told Reuters on Thursday. "So I don't think they have any real credibility to complain even though they are the primary opponent." Ohanian, one of those entrepreneurs that Smith is portraying as a villain, has said that SOPA would "cripple the Internet" and isn't shy about stating the bill's real implications bluntly. "This (SOPA) could potentially obliterate the entire tech industry -- a job-creating industry," Ohanian wrote on his blog recently. But if you're the type that likes to listen to Harvard professors, it could also obliterate the entire Internet as we know it.