By Gautham Nagesh - 01/19/12 01:50 AM EST
Support for two controversial online-piracy bills began to crumble Wednesday in the face of protests from thousands of websites, including tech titans Google and Wikipedia.
The unprecedented online demonstration against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) — epitomized by a black censorship bar plastered over the Google logo — spurred a rush for the exits on Capitol Hill as lawmakers rapidly withdrew their support for the legislation.
Senate Republicans reacted quickly to the Web blackout, which exposed hundreds of millions of Internet users to the piracy bills for the first time.
Hatch, Rubio, Blunt and Boozman all pulled their sponsorship of the Senate bill.
“Rushing something with such potential for far-reaching consequences is something I cannot support,” Hatch said in a statement.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, announced late Wednesday he no longer supports the Senate piracy bill moving forward, though he declined to withdraw his sponsorship.
“Internet piracy is illegal, and we need to find a way that works for all sides,” Grassley said in a statement. “The current Protect IP Act needs more due diligence, analysis, and substantial changes. As it stands right now, I can’t support the bill moving forward next week.”
Other lawmakers staked out their opposition for the first time. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Tea Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) came out against SOPA and PIPA, with DeMint labeling the anti-piracy measures “misguided bills that will cause more harm than good.”
“When protecting intellectual property rights, we must not undermine free speech, threaten economic growth or impose burdensome regulations,” DeMint tweeted.
It was a stunning shift in momentum for the piracy legislation, which until only recently had seemed destined for quick passage through Congress.
Despite the growing opposition, Senate Democratic aides said a scheduled cloture vote on PIPA will still be held next Tuesday, ensuring that senators on both sides will be forced to take sides.
The online demonstrations against the bills were a dramatic display of power by the tech industry, which has waged a full-on assault against the piracy bills and their supporters in the entertainment industry.
Wikipedia, the sixth most visited website in the world, blacked out its English-version site and greeted visitors with an ominous warning: “Imagine a world without free knowledge.”
Google and Wikipedia weren’t the only big-name sites that tried to galvanize opposition. The popular discussion board reddit went dark at 8 a.m. and vowed to “fight back” against Congress.
Other sites participating in the protest included craigslist, Mozilla, Imgur, Raw Story, MoveOn.org, Cheezburger and the Consumer Electronics Association.
Facebook — perhaps the only rival to Google in Web strength — did not shut down, but the social network’s Washington, D.C., office posted a page that said the bills are “not the right solution” because of the “collateral damage they would cause to the Internet.” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and CEO, expressed his opposition in a post on his Facebook page and said the site will “continue to oppose any laws that will hurt the Internet.”
Under SOPA and PIPA, the government and copyright holders could force U.S. Web firms to block access to foreign sites dedicated to providing Americans with illegal copies of copyrighted and counterfeit goods. The entertainment industry contends anti-piracy laws are crucial for its survival, pointing to the widespread availability of illegally obtained content on sites like The Pirate Bay.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the main sponsor of SOPA in the House, told The Hill he has met with opponents of his bill and has found their arguments wanting.
“Any time I challenge them to come up with ways to reduce online piracy, I never hear any answers,” Smith said, noting that copyright holders must obtain a court order to go after rogue sites and that only “the worst of the worst” offenders would be targeted.
“I think their fears are groundless — they can’t point to any specific language in the legislation,” Smith said.
The Judiciary chairman said he plans to finish marking up SOPA next month en route to a possible floor vote.
But that markup might be for naught if Web companies succeed in scaring off supporters in Congress.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) expressed a reluctance to move forward with SOPA on Wednesday, with both sides still divided over the bill and its potential consequences.
“Listen, this bill is in committee. It’s had a number of hearings. It went through a markup, and it’s pretty clear to many of us that there’s a lack of consensus at this point,” Boehner said. “And I would expect the committee to continue its work to try to build a consensus before this bill moves.”
Opponents of the piracy bill seem to have turned public opinion in their favor despite the considerable advantages in lobbying strength, organizational resources and media coverage enjoyed by Hollywood, the recording industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other supporters.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) are pushing an alternative online-piracy bill, known as the OPEN Act, that many tech firms support. Issa was busy gathering co-sponsors Wednesday for OPEN after canceling a scheduled hearing on SOPA.
Issa told The Hill that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had called him and “simply reiterated that in the spirit of us all finding a way to work on getting this together, he would offer me the protection from it going to the floor so that we had a chance to more fully get it vetted without necessarily the hearing that I had scheduled.”
Smith expressed scorn for the OPEN Act and said it would do little to combat copyright theft.
“That doesn’t solve the problem, in my judgment. I don’t know of a single foreign illegal website that would actually be sanctioned by that bill. It doesn’t solve any aspect of the problem and it’s expensive for anybody to use the vehicle they set in place,” he said.
— Brendan Sasso and Molly K. Hooper contributed reporting.