An online protest led by Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. against U.S. anti-piracy bills illustrates how Internet companies are changing legislative debate in Washington.
Thirteen co-sponsors, eight in the Senate and five House members, began withdrawing their support for Hollywood-backed measures to combat piracy. Internet companies devoted home pages yesterday to opposing the bills, threatening a traditional lobbying effort led by the Motion Picture Association of America that assembled bipartisan support for the legislation.
The movie and music industries want Google and online services to block non-U.S. websites that peddle pirated movies and counterfeit goods, while Internet companies say the bills would promote censorship, disrupt the Web’s architecture and harm their ability to innovate.
“It’s unprecedented,” Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard University professor of law and computer science who serves on the boards of bill opponents Electronic Frontier Foundation and Internet Society, said in an interview. “You could see some members of Congress saying there’s no percentage in it for me to stick out my neck on something like this.”
The anti-piracy bills call for the U.S. Justice Department to seek court orders forcing Internet-service providers, search engines, payment processors and online ad networks to block or stop doing business with non-U.S. sites linked to piracy. The measures would let private copyright holders seek court orders forcing payment and ad companies to cut off such websites.
Changing Political Process
A promise by lead sponsors of the bills to drop the requirement for service providers to block websites, after opponents said it may harm the Web’s domain-name system, failed to stop Internet companies from protesting.
“These organizations have reinvented a lot of the ways we live, how we connect, how we absorb media,” said Rogan Kersh, an associate dean at New York University’s Wagner School who conducts research on lobbying. “They’re now trying to reinvent how we carry out democratic politics.”
Visitors to Google, the world’s most popular search engine, were greeted yesterday by a black box covering the company’s familiar icon, and a message that read “Tell Congress: Please don’t censor the Web!” The message linked to a page outlining Mountain View, California-based Google’s opposition and an option to join an online petition urging Congress to reject the legislation.
Congressional Sites Slowed
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia run by a nonprofit organization where users contribute entries, shut the English language version of its website for 24 hours to protest the bills, displaying a blacked-out page that gave people contact information for their elected officials.
“We can’t let poorly thought out laws get in the way of the Internet’s development,” Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said in a post on the social network yesterday. The message connects to a Facebook page outlining the company’s opposition to the bills, with a link for people to contact members of Congress.
News website Reddit, blog Boing Boing and video game site Minecraft went dark in opposition to the anti-piracy bills. EBay Inc., LinkedIn Corp. and Twitter Inc., opponents of the anti-piracy legislation in Congress, didn’t close during the protest, though Twitter CEO Dick Costolo responded to posts this week by telling users to contact their senators.
Traffic to websites of House members doubled yesterday under the increased protest volume, said Dan Weiser, a spokesman for the House Chief Administrator’s Office. Some congressional sites displayed error messages or were slow during the day, signs of heavy usage.
Co-sponsors who say they can no longer support the Senate legislation as written include Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Orrin Hatch of Utah, John Boozman of Arkansas, David Vitter of Louisiana, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire as well as Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement yesterday he couldn’t support the bill moving forward next week.
Republican Representatives Ben Quayle of Arizona, Lee Terry of Nebraska, Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Dennis Ross of Florida and Democratic Representative Tim Holden of Pennsylvania said they would stop backing the House measure.
Rubio said he switched his position on the Senate measure, the Protect IP Act, after examining opponents’ contention it would present a “potentially unreasonable expansion of the federal government’s power to impact the Internet,” according to a Facebook posting yesterday. The Senate has a procedural vote scheduled for Jan. 24 on proceeding with its bill.
‘Abuse of Power’
The Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Senate’s measure are backed by the movie and music industries as a means to crack down on the sale of counterfeit goods. Hollywood studios want lawmakers to ensure that Internet companies such as Google share responsibility for curbing the distribution of pirated material.
The so-called blackout day of protest is an “abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today,” Christopher Dodd, chairman of the Washington-based Motion Picture Association of America, said in a Jan. 17 statement before the online action got under way.
“It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests,” said Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who served three decades in the Senate.
The administration of President Barack Obama cast some doubt over the legislation’s prospects on Jan. 14, saying in a blog post that it wouldn’t support measures that encourage censorship or disrupt the structure of the Internet.
The blog post, signed by three White House technology officials, marked the administration’s most significant foray into the fight between content creators and Web companies that has been playing out in Congress.
Google and Facebook are boosting spending and their Washington presence to cope with a growing list of issues, including online piracy as well as consumer privacy and antitrust. Google hired 19 outside lobbying firms last year, and Facebook has two new outside firms, Senate records show.
Employees of television, movie and music companies have been the top source of political contributions to Representative Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who heads the House Judiciary Committee, for his 2012 re-election campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics research group. Smith introduced the House version of the anti-piracy bill.
‘Turned the Tide’
Those industries’ workers were the second-biggest source of donations to Senator Patrick Leahy’s last re-election in 2010, center data show. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sponsored the Senate bill.
Obama got $1.34 million in campaign donations from employees of the computer and Internet industries since January 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Obama received $1.02 million from workers in the television, movie and music industries in the same time.
Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican who opposes the anti-piracy measures, applauded websites that took part in yesterday’s protest.
“This unprecedented effort has turned the tide against a backroom lobbying effort by interests that aren’t used to being told ‘no,’” Issa said in an e-mailed statement. He introduced alternative legislation yesterday that would send complaints about piracy by non-U.S. websites to the International Trade Commission.
The House bill is H.R. 3261 and the Senate bill is S. 968.