After quietly scheduling a last minute markup hearing, the House Judiciary Committee quietly but definitively put the Stop Online Piracy Bill (SOPA) on hold until "early next year." The hundreds of thousands of civil rights advocates who declared victory last Friday -- when a two-day marathon session ended without having passed many amendments but also without having sent the bill to the floor -- can now take a second lap. But the battle to stop SOPA is far from over.
For the time being, the legislative spotlight on SOPA will go dark. This could last ten days while Senators and Representatives are home for the holidays. Depending on the whims of House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, SOPA could find its way back onto the committee agenda as early as the first week of January. Then again, with what appears to be an increasingly effective campaign to stop SOPA and push his alternative bill OPEN -- one Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain described it to us as a "less shrill proposal" -- Rep. Darrell Issa could buy the bill's opponents even more time to make their case about opening the door to censorship is not the most effective way to addressing the online piracy problem. "This bill is not ready for prime time," said Rep. Darrell Issa, said in last Friday's hearing. "First of all, we haven't heard from the scientists. We haven't done our due diligence." Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who was actually born in Silicon Valley, implored his colleagues to "bring in the nerds" so that the next round of debate would be data-driven, rather than interest-driven. Hollywood has spent buckets of money on lobbyists, approximately four times as much as the tech companies that oppose the bill's strict regulations and questionable treatment of civil rights.
As Congress goes home for the holidays, the entertainment industry lobby continues to work hard to throw more support behind a powerful anti-piracy bill like SOPA. The latest evidence of back room dealings comes in the form of a report released by the executive branch on Wednesday, and it would appear that Hollywood will not take a vacation in its fight against the Internet. The notably anti-SOPA blog Torrent Freak explains (and sort of interprets) the new report:
In its second "Out-of-Cycle Review of Notorious Markets", the United States Trade Representative (USTR) has listed more than a dozen websites and physical markets which are reportedly involved in piracy and counterfeiting. The list is based solely on input from lobby groups including the RIAA and MPAA, who submitted their recommendations a few weeks ago. While the USTR admits that the list is not meant to reflect legal violations, the websites mentioned in the report "merit further investigation" for their alleged infringing behavior.
Depending on how you feel about SOPA, the Internet and Hollywood, the USTR report and the active involvement of the executive branch in SOPA-related topics bears good news and bad news. The good news is summed up in the last sentence of the above quote. Because SOPA is inevitably a law that would address international trade regulations, it matters that the agency responsible for coordinating trade policy is acknowledging that we need to know more about how alleged off-shore piracy havens; The Pirate Bay, isoHunt, BTJunkie and Megaload are all mentioned. More research is just what Issa and Chaffetz asked for last week!
The prickly implications of the USTR report -- the bad news if you will -- involves the Hollywood lobby whose input "the list is based solely on." Torrent Freak makes a logical leap in drawing a line between the RIAA and MPAA's list of bad sites, and the list that ended up in the report. But the very vocal SOPA opposition is already suspicious of Hollywood's attempts to crack down on piracy to protect their bottom line; if a few Constitutional rights get stomped in the process, well fighting crime isn't always pretty. As the names of entertainment industry lobbyists pop up in other government agencies' reports, in entirely different branches, we're sure those same Internet advocates will continue to doubt the government's intentions in pushing through Draconian measures to fight piracy. As we've explained several times before, it's not simply the idea that SOPA could block entire domain names, make Justin Bieber a fellon for singing covers of copyrighted songs on YouTube and potentially quelling innovation on the web that bothers SOPA opponents. Sure, those line items don't help, but the real worry from legal and Internet experts is the lack of empirical research into the problem. We now know all too well that the members of Congress responsible for pushing SOPA and its dormant equivalent in the Senate, the PROTECT IP bill, don't really understand the Internet. Ignorance is always a great reason to worry about the influence of people being paid to make people think a certain way, which is more or less an explanation of how lobbying often works.
Issa's office sent us a check-it-out email on Wednesday afternoon, celebrating how OPEN had made it to the front page of Wikipedia. (By the way, now that we're thinking of it, whatever happened to Jimmy Wales's threat to shut down Wikipedia if SOPA moved forward? We're guessing that will be put off until next year, too.) Prominent placement on one of the most-trafficked front pages on the web is a little victory for Issa in a much larger battle to bring awareness to an issue that affects, well, everyone on the Internet. For those who feared that 2011 would end with America's own version of the Great Firewall of China, however, the delay of further debate over the bill is a big victory. And every little victory counts.
Homework assignment: If you're still not happy taking a victory lap and want to protest the bill through the New Year, Gizmodo's Sam Biddle has a list of the SOPA proponents (and their phone numbers) that might help.