Online activists triumphant as Congress buries anti-piracy bills

Congressional leaders buried a pair of controversial anti-piracy bills Friday after coming under intense pressure from online activists and tech companies. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) canceled next week’s vote on the Protect IP Act (PIPA) on Friday morning, and minutes later, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said he would shelve the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

The sudden retreat is a resounding victory for online activists, who mobilized intense opposition to the legislation with a protest Wednesday that featured blackouts across the Web. 

Both bills seemed poised to sail through Congress just a few weeks ago and now appear dead.

In announcing the delay in the Senate, Reid said he was postponing the vote “in light of recent events.”

“There is no reason that the legitimate issues raised by many about this bill cannot be resolved,” Reid said in a statement. “Counterfeiting and piracy cost the American economy billions of dollars and thousands of jobs each year, with the movie industry alone supporting over 2.2 million jobs. We must take action to stop these illegal practices.” 

Smith, the author of SOPA and its most vocal proponent, said he would postpone consideration of the bill and seek wider agreement on it.

“I have heard from the critics and I take seriously their concerns regarding proposed legislation to address the problem of online piracy,” Smith said. “It is clear that we need to revisit the approach on how best to address the problem of foreign thieves that steal and sell American inventions and products.”

Smith’s announcement was a stunning acknowledgment of defeat for the powerful chairman, who had repeatedly said SOPA did not need to be changed and accused its critics of “spreading lies.” 

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he told Smith to shelve the bill.

"I suggested to him that it’s time to build more consensus. ... He agreed," Boehner said.

Support for the piracy bills collapsed in Congress after Wednesday’s massive Web protest unleashed a wave of voter anger.

Google, the most visited site in the world, plastered a black censorship bar over its logo, and Wikipedia blacked out its English-version site. More than 7 million people signed Google’s petition opposing the legislation.

GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Roy Blunt (Mo.), John Boozman (Ark.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) had signed on as co-sponsors of the Protect IP Act, but by Thursday, all of them had switched their position in the face of the public outcry.

On Thursday evening, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called on Reid to postpone next week’s vote.

He said Reid made the “right decision” to delay the “flawed legislation.”

McConnell’s opposition made it unlikely that the bill would have been able to receive the 60 votes needed to cut off debate and proceed to a final vote.

The consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge called the protests a "wake-up call" and said it's time for Congress to tackle the piracy issue with a clean slate. 

"Internet Blackout Day showed that people all across the country, and around the world, are watching and engaged in what is going on in Washington as Congress debates its Internet bills," Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge, said in a statement Friday.

"Now that the current bills have been dropped in both the Senate and House, Congress should start from scratch to determine the nature of the problem."  

Proponents of anti-piracy legislation vowed to press on.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which had been pushing hard for legislation to counter film piracy, said Congress must continue to work toward a "meaningful solution" to copyright theft.

"As a consequence of failing to act, there will continue to be a safe haven for foreign thieves; American jobs will continue to be lost; and consumers will continue to be exposed to fraudulent and dangerous products peddled by foreign criminals," MPAA chairman and former senator Chris Dodd said in a statement.

SOPA and Protect IP are designed to go after foreign websites that offer illegal copies of movies, music and TV shows. The bills would empower the Justice Department and copyright holders to demand that search engines delete links to foreign sites deemed “dedicated” to copyright infringement. Ad networks and payment processors would be prohibited from doing business with the sites.

Movie studios, record labels and business groups said the legislation would cut down on illegal file sharing, which is hurting companies and eliminating jobs.

But Web companies warned that the bills would stifle innovation and censor free speech. They said the legislation would impose an unreasonable burden on websites to police user-generated content and could lead to legitimate websites being shut down.

The White House expressed concerns with the piracy legislation in a blog post over the weekend and called for all sides to work toward a compromise. 

"It's important for both sides on this issue to come together and work out that solution" to ensure a free and open internet, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday.

This story was last updated at 2:11 p.m.

Amie Parnes and Molly K. Hooper contributed.