The coordinated, voluntary blackout of thousands of websites protesting online piracy legislation took Washington by storm on Wednesday, forcing lawmakers to reconsider their support and giving a momentum-changing boost to a technology sector battling to kill the business-, labor-, and Hollywood-backed bills.
The unprecedented full and partial blackouts of such name-brand sites as Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Google were fueled by a stew of grassroots activists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and corporate lobbyists desperate to derail legislation backed by an entertainment industry lobby that had gotten a huge head start and had already helped push legislation to the Senate floor for a vote as early as next week.
But perhaps more than anything, the blackouts threw into stark relief the old school-versus-new line approaches each side brings to what has become a massive lobbying battle.
Just listen to Motion Picture Association of America Chairman Christopher Dodd describe the blackouts in an interview on MSNBC Wednesday: “This is the height of irresponsibility,” Dodd said. “You’ve got the petulance -- I’ve got young children, and when they get upset they scream or they hold their breath. And that’s what this sort of amounts to.”
And, on the other side of the issue, TechNet President Rey Ramsey, whose group represents the nation’s top tech chief executives: “Ultimately, to effectuate change you not only have to be strong in the halls of Congress, but in grassroots. So I would say welcome to the 21st century.”
He said he was downright “delighted” by the industry’s progress. And why shouldn’t he be?
Republican Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Marco Rubio of Florida, as well as Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, have backed off on their support for the Senate’s Protect IP Act. In the House, Republican Rep. Ben Quayle of Arizona has withdrawn his co-sponsorship of the Stop Online Piracy Act, and Rep. Lee Terry’s office said the Nebraska Republican plans to do the same.
The two bills are aimed at quashing piracy and counterfeiting on foreign websites and are supported by MPAA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the AFL-CIO. But tech behemoths like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, along with a small army of bloggers and Internet users, worry that, as written, the bills will censor free speech and stifle innovation.
On Wednesday, thousands of websites blacked out all or part of their sites, with some linking users to a page explaining their opposition and asking them to contact their members of Congress. Urban Dictionary, a website that defines slang terms, defined SOPA as “the [expletive]-est piece of legislation the U.S. government ever came up with” -- in case you wondered what the editors there really thought.
The movement was a mix of viral meme and corporate grasstops. TechNet, for example, has been working with companies, venture capitalists, and meet-up organizations to circulate analysis of the legislation and key talking points. The legislative goal is to slow the bills down and replace their untenable solutions with workable ones, including a look at a voluntary, industry-led approach, Ramsey said.
The bills’ supporters, meanwhile, continued a traditional air and ground attack that includes national print and television ads, targeted radio spots, and an animated banner ad asking “What to do during an Internet blackout” that ran on a billboard in Times Square on Wednesday. They also had boots-on-the-ground lobbyists working Capitol Hill.
“We’re going up to the Hill to remind them what’s really at stake here: not political stunts, but American jobs and protecting consumers from foreign criminals,” said the Chamber’s chief IP counsel, Steve Tepp.
He noted that the bills’ sponsors, House and Senate Judiciary Chairmen Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have already agreed to remove one of the bills’ most controversial provisions, which requires service providers to block U.S. access to foreign sites that infringe on copyrights or sell counterfeit goods.
But opponents have other concerns, including censorship and broad definitions of what constitutes a rogue site.
The blackouts gave the tech industry a new and untested lever to flex their lobbying muscle. And while it marked a leap forward for an industry still learning its way around Washington, it remained unclear if, and how effectively, it could be replicated.
“This is something that could be repeated, but it couldn’t be repeated on just any issue. It resonates with people in having the freedom to go on the Internet and not be censored,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who represents Silicon Valley and opposes the bills.
She said she didn’t know what Wednesday’s success would mean for the technology industry’s influence in Washington, but noted that some of the biggest blackout players -- Reddit and Boing Boing, for instance -- don’t share the outsized Beltway profile of larger industry players.
But the blackouts may have changed the balance of power.
“Before this happened, the perception around here was that those who are in favor of ever-increasing copyright protections always won,” said a senior Democratic congressional staffer familiar with the issue. “This may shift people’s expectations. It’s hard to say how much, but I think in a way that we haven’t seen in a long time. Folks on the Hill are realizing that there are a lot of people out there, and not just tech companies, that care about copyright issues.”
Tim Lordan runs the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee, an agnostic forum for tech leaders and policy makers to discuss issues. He said he thinks Wednesday’s blackouts are a big step forward for the industry’s influence, but he’s “not confident that Silicon Valley has arrived in Washington. They are nowhere near as concerted and coordinated as the entertainment industry is.”
Now that the industry has seemingly slowed the process down, it must decide what solutions to piracy and counterfeiting it can live with.
“If this legislation doesn’t pass,” Lordan said, “the high-tech community will be extremely lucky.”
Juliana Gruenwald contributed contributed to this article.