Capping a week of dramatic protests and fierce lobbying on both sides of the issue, Senate and House leaders announced on Friday they were pulling the plug on a pair of controversial bills to crack down on foreign websites that use pirated content, effectively killing piracy legislation for now.
Congress backed off the legislation after an unprecedented online protest on Wednesday by an estimated 115,000 websites and 13 million Internet users that catapulted the debate onto the national stage. At least eight former cosponsors of the Senate's Protect IP Act defected, as did some congressional supporters of the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act, which aims to give U.S. officials more tools to fight international piracy and copyright infringement.
Wikipedia, Craigslist, and other high-profile websites blacked out their entire sites, saying the measures would limit free speech and harm the open nature of the Internet.
The dramatic show of force by Internet companies large and small seems to have paid off, and marks a stinging defeat for many in the traditionally strong entertainment lobby, which had pushed hard for the legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement that "in light of recent events" he will postpone a vote that had been set for Tuesday on whether to begin debate on Protect IP. Then House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said he would postpone consideration of the House version until more agreement can be found.
“I suggested to him it was time to build more consensus," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters in Baltimore, where House Republicans are gathered for their annual issues retreat.
“This proposal, while well meaninged, has some difficulties. I expect the chairman, like any chairman, to build more consensus before trying to move this bill out of committee,” Boehner added.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., forced Reid's hand on Thursday when he called for Tuesday’s vote to be postponed, signaling that Republicans would likely stick together in voting against allowing debate to begin on the bill.
Despite two years of aggressive lobbying by a broad coalition of copyright and trademark owners, the decisions by House and Senate leaders have stalled the legislation for now and will force some recalculation by its backers before they decide whether to make another push this year or even in the next Congress.
While supporters of the two bills indicated they want to try to find a way to address what most agree is a growing problem, the issue for now appears to have grown so toxic that even the four Republican presidential candidates distanced themselves from it during Thursday night’s debate in South Carolina. “The bill in its current form is written really badly and leads to a range of censorship that is totally unacceptable,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said.
Congressional backers of the legislation conceded they misjudged the ferocity of national opposition. Much of the problem lay in a lack of coordination resulting from trying to move separate House and Senate bills in a divided Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee reported its version out in May but it was blocked from moving to the floor by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. The House Judiciary Committee did not start consideration on its bill until December and never completed a markup. As late as Wednesday afternoon, Smith had been insisting that he would resume work on SOPA next month.
Wyden is working with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., to determine how to proceed.
Just as the Web protests were roundly dismissed and disparaged by the bills’ supporters, Reid’s decision to back off sparked sharp reaction from Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who sponsored the Protect IP Act and said the problem of online piracy won’t go away.
“I understand and respect Majority Leader Reid’s decision to seek consent to vitiate cloture on the motion to proceed to the Protect IP Act,” Leahy said in a statement. “But the day will come when the senators who forced this move will look back and realize they made a knee-jerk reaction to a monumental problem.”
Smith, meanwhile, said it “is clear that we need to revisit the approach” on combating piracy.
Industry supporters, some of whom dismissed Wednesday’s protest as a “gimmick,” echoed this frustration. “The threat posed by these criminal operations has been widely acknowledged by even the most ardent critics,” Motion Picture Association of America Chairman and CEO Chris Dodd, a former Democratic senator from Connecticut, said in a statement. “It is incumbent that they now sincerely work with all of us to achieve a meaningful solution to this critically important goal.”
Opponents have repeatedly said they are willing to consider ways to address online piracy and reiterated that offer on Friday. But they also indicated it would have to be done with much more careful consideration of the impact on the Internet and innovation.
“It is clear that Congress needs to have more discussion and education about the workings of the Internet before it moves forward on sweeping legislation to address intellectual property theft on the Internet,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who helped lead the House opposition to SOPA, said in a statement. “I look forward to working with my colleagues and stakeholders to achieve a needed consensus about the way forward.”