In fight between lobbyists and the Internet over piracy bill, techies won

Online activists and tech companies proved with the protests of anti-piracy legislation Wednesday that they can leverage mass opposition to legislation and wield what amounts to a veto power over Congress.

The grassroots opposition drummed up by sites such as Google and Wikipedia led to piracy bills being shelved in both chambers on Friday and served notice that the tech lobby is coming of age as a political force in Washington.

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Consumer Electronics Association president Gary Shapiro said the reversal on Capitol Hill was the most dramatic he’s ever seen.

"It's huge, a historic retreat," he told The Hill.

A few months ago, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that online piracy legislation was on a smooth road to President Obama’s desk.

The piracy push had the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest and most influential business lobby. Hollywood studios and the recording industry were pushing hard to line up support from both sides of the aisle. Labor unions, an ally of Democrats, were also calling for action. 

The chairmen of the Judiciary committees in both the House and Senate — Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), respectively — were onboard and moving ahead with legislation, and the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), was a co-sponsor in the House.

Then the Internet got involved.

The unprecedented protests against bills, spearheaded by sites like reddit, saw thousands of websites shut down and blackout to protest the legislation. Two days later, the anti-piracy push was stopped dead in its tracks.

"It's a significant moment for citizen activism in a very unique way," said NetCoalition executive director Markham Erickson. "When industry threatens to fundamentally change the way the Internet works, it lit the imaginations of millions of people."

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), an opponent of the Senate anti-piracy bill that was shelved, said the turn of events “demonstrate clearly that the Internet is the catalyst for the important changes Americans want in government.”

Leading tech companies like Google and Facebook are also players in the traditional influence game, and had teams of lobbyists fighting the legislation in Washington. 

But observers said the opposition of Web companies, on its own, wasn’t enough to thwart the legislation. That, they say, took the involvement of Web users willing to make their feelings known.

"This affects everyone in the country. This is not something the tech industry could have done by itself,” said Public Knowledge communications director Art Brodsky.

"It worked so well because it was so visible,” Brodsky said.

Reddit general manager Erik Martin said it was gratifying to see the movement come together in a matter of weeks "with no real sort of organization."

He contrasted the viral approach with the top-down campaign engineered by supporters of anti-piracy legislation.

"The Internet is a platform where things are voted up or down. A person without a lot of access can rise to the top if a lot of people agree with them or people start adding on and [the idea] starts evolving," Martin said.

Supporters said the House’s online piracy bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), only targeted foreign websites dedicated to trafficking in pirated movies, music, software and counterfeit goods. But the Web community drew a line in the sand at requiring firms to police content and block access to sites targeted by the law.

Erickson cited several provisions in the bill the tech industry views as problematic including the private right of action and the attempt to make sites disappear by requiring search engines to block them.

Both SOPA and the Senate’s piracy bill, the Protect IP Act, appear to have lost all momentum. An alternative proposal supported by the tech community, dubbed the OPEN Act, will likely get a closer look in the weeks ahead.

Experts are mixed on whether the momentum from the protests can be transferred to other tech issues.

"I hope this becomes a trend where people get involved," Martin said. "The fact it was bipartisan made a big difference. A lot of people [in the tech industry] have no interest in partisan politics, no taste for any of that stuff."

"It's very hard to sustain a campaign and a level of interest on continuing sorts of issues," Brodsky said. "People across the country are interested, this mass protest would be nice to sustain, but I don't know how you do that."


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