SOPA: Washington Vs. The Web
Ryan Grim contributed reporting
WASHINGTON -- A month ago, Google lobbyist Katherine Oyama absorbed one of the more unusual congressional tongue-lashings in years when she appeared before a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) joked that Oyama had walked into a "lion's den."
After praising representatives of drug giant Pfizer and the Motion Picture Association of America for their aggressive efforts to combat online piracy of American products, a bipartisan cadre of committee members spent much of the hearing berating Google, and Oyama personally, as corrupt, compromised and selfish.
"One of the companies represented here today has sought to obstruct the Committee's consideration of bipartisan legislation," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said.
"In my experience there's usually only one thing at stake when we have long lines outside a hearing as we do today, and when giant companies, like the ones opposing this bill, and their supporters start throwing around rhetoric like, 'This bill will kill the Internet,'" said Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), glowering at Oyama. "That one thing is usually money."
It's not unheard-of for corporate representatives to pay public penance on Capitol Hill, but Google seemed a strange subject for abuse: Unlike recent corporate target MF Global and congressional villain Goldman Sachs, Google's shaming wasn't preceded by massive public outcry.
So what raised the committee's ire? An extremely technical, low-profile bill that isn't being covered by cable news, but has nearly 1,000 registered lobbyists officially working on it: the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA -- a bill with the power to fundamentally reshape the laws governing the Internet.
SOPA would imbue the federal government with broad powers to shut down whole web domains on the basis that it believes them to be associated with piracy -- without a trial or even a traditional hearing. It would provide Hollywood with powerful new legal tools to stifle transactions with websites whose existence worries the movie industry.
The bill's supporters, which also include major record labels, trial lawyers and pharmaceutical giants, call SOPA a robust effort to curb piracy of American goods online.
Opponents, however, have castigated it as an unparalleled attack on free speech online. Civil liberties advocates say SOPA would give the U.S. government the same censorship tools used in China. Those in the technology sector warn that the bill creates enormous new barriers to entry for web startups, threatening innovation and job creation. Farther afield, librarians say that under the letter of the proposed anti-piracy law, they could be jailed for simply doing their jobs.
But with buy-in from powerful members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, SOPA's backers had hoped for few roadblocks en route to a Thursday committee vote and, from there, the House floor. The bill's future is in greater doubt, however, given unexpectedly strong opposition from both grassroots organizers and corporate players with a vested interest in maintaining the Internet's status quo.
In fact, SOPA and its companion Senate bill, Protect IP, have splintered the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's preeminent business lobby. In October, Internet portal Yahoo publicly withdrew from the Chamber -- an extremely rare move for a big U.S. business. Google lobbyists tell HuffPost they "wouldn't be surprised" if the leading search giant soon followed Yahoo out the door.
The opposition has succeeded in slowing legislative momentum. Sources in Congress and on K Street now say that Senate is unlikely to vote on its measure by the end of the year. And the bill's prospects become much slimmer in 2012, an election year in which members will spend much more time away from the Hill.
Yet in the meantime, other legislation has been left sitting idle, including bills to maintain current Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors, renew the payroll tax cut for the middle class and maintain the flow of unemployment benefits. So how has a bill this arcane occupied so much congressional attention?
Grassroots lobbying has been a factor, but the SOPA war in Congress has mostly been waged between different corporate elements, each with deep pockets. While bipartisanship has been hard to come by in Washington this year on high-profile issues, it's been easy to find on SOPA and the other corporate disputes that have taken much of the legislature's time this year -- banks vs. retailers, Silicon Valley vs. Big Pharma. But unlike previous corporate spats on Capitol Hill, voters would quickly see the impact of the year's final congressional action if the government uses it to give their favorite websites the ax.
Movie studios, cable companies and major record labels have been railing against copied songs and films for decades. In the '20s, record labels required musicians to sign contracts promising never to appear on a new medium called "radio." Nearly a century later, the Recording Industry Association of America sued a 12-year old girl for downloading children's TV theme songs on her parents' computer. And for the past decade, they've hammered Capitol Hill with the same demand: Stop online piracy.
"Hollywood and the recording industry have a one-item agenda. You can't say to them, 'If you go softer on this, I'll give you that,' because there's no 'that' for them," says Gigi Sohn, president and Co-Founder of Public Knowledge, the leading nonprofit on Internet freedom issues, and a staunch opponent of SOPA.
The top target has been the Judiciary Committee, a powerful circle of lawmakers that is responsible not only for intellectual property rules, but judicial appointments, bankruptcy law and scores of issues involving constitutional rights.