The political realities of Capitol Hill got tossed head-over-heels in the last few weeks. And a successful model for the future use of Internet-based “People Power” in Congress has emerged.
The story begins with the average American feeling pretty disconnected from his or her government.
Everyone knows that armies of well-paid lobbyists influence legislation to benefit wealthy clients. That is business as usual on the Hill. The average member of Congress must raise more than $5,000 per week to get reelected. Most of that money comes from PAC fundraisers and Beltway insiders — not from their constituents.
But in January, the gears in the big-money political machine got jammed by “People Power.”
I refer to the mechanics of what once seemed certain passage of the Stop Online Piracy (SOPA) Act. But now SOPA and its Senate companion, the PROTECT IP (PIPA) Act, have been postponed.
Both pieces of legislation received heavy support from big media and entertainment companies with legitimate concerns about the theft and trafficking of stolen intellectual property — movies, books and music — over the Internet. The entertainment industry, represented by such lobbying giants as the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, are strong supporters of the bills.
Initially, the bills had supporters in Congress from every point on the political spectrum. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a conservative Republican from Texas, and ranking member John Conyers, a liberal Democrat from Michigan, were the original co-sponsors of SOPA.
The bills would have given the government unprecedented new power to block access to websites it suspected of illegally disseminating copyrighted materials.
The government also would have been able to force Internet service providers to effectively shut down any website they believed to have aided a copyright violation. The bills also could have prevented companies from linking to these websites or doing business with them, under penalty of fine or imprisonment.
Those drastic powers opened the doors to major concerns about government censorship. And that set a fire on the left and right wings of American politics.
Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, Craigslist and hundreds of other websites fed the fire by breaking with the Chamber of Commerce and opposing these bills. They also mobilized their users to take action. Some even blocked access to their websites to show what would happen if the government were given the new powers.
People who tried to use these websites were directed to other sites providing contact information for their senators and congressmen so they could make their opposition known. Congressional offices were inundated with phone calls, emails and letters from angry constituents.
The groundswell of public opposition, aided by the high-profile websites, got the mainstream media’s attention. That led to protests, “People Power” and the postponement of SOPA and PIPA.
The entertainment and publishing companies do have a legitimate complaint. They have every right to make money off the fruits of their labor. When people can steal their product online, this right is infringed upon.
But in the view of many free-speech advocates, and apparently a world of Internet users, these bills were a staggering overreaction. There simply has to be a better way than creating a new American Internet police force.
This month, Congress will take up the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade (OPEN) Act. This bill appears a far-more reasonable and measured solution to the problem of online piracy. It would give the U.S. International Trade Commission limited power to resolve intellectual property disputes with oversight and accountability. This makes sense because the majority of copyright violations emanate from foreign countries such as China.
The Internet is the single greatest force for free speech the world has ever known. The First Amendment allows Americans to enjoy these benefits without fear of government censorship.
During the Arab Spring, we saw that the Internet is also a force for democracy in the world. It allowed groups of pro-democracy activists to mobilize ordinary citizens to overthrow their oppressive governments.
Last week proved what the democratic power of the Internet can accomplish. Ordinary people used the free Internet to stop Congress from encroaching on the free Internet.
Imagine what else the people could accomplish if they used the power of the Internet as they did last week.