In the face of an Internet rebellion, both senators and members of the House of Representatives are backing away from two anti-piracy bills now making their way through Congress.
But the protests of Internet giants such as Google and Wikipedia, with some essentially shutting down for a day, go beyond the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), consumer activists and academics say. The protests are a call for Congress to reconsider the way it fights digital thievery.
In short, critics say, Congress is looking for a 20th-century answer to a 21st-century challenge.
The intent of the SOPA and PIPA bills is to cut off access to sites that distribute copyrighted material illegally. But critics say it is a heavy-handed solution that won't solve the problem and could quash the sharing and collaboration that fuel innovation on the Internet.
The deeper problem, they suggest, is that the music and film industries simply haven't adapted quickly enough to the new realities of the online world, and are instead trying to use Congress to prop up outdated practices.
“Consumers want easy access to content and many are willing to pay for it – so the onus is on businesses to meet these demands,” says Anjelika Petrochenko, general manager at LiveJournal.com, a site that hosts online bloggers, journals, and discussion threads.
While there are exceptions, she says, “SOPA/PIPA legislation is a poorly written excuse for intellectual-property owners to hide their own inability to adapt.”
Industry leaders disagree. In a statement Wednesday, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) said that sites participating in the blackout are "irresponsible" and "resorting to stunts that punish their users." Chief Executive Chris Dodd, a former US senator, said the blackouts are an "abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace.”
The concern among critics of the legislation is that broad-brush strokes by Congress could damage web ventures that seek to find innovative ways of distributing content in the digital realm.
“SOPA will prevent innovation in order to prevent piracy," says Vince Leung, cofounder of the social media site, MentorMob.com.
Rather than shutting down services which provide jobs, efficiency, and value to their users, he adds, “the SOPA supporters should think how the business model needs to change with the times.”
Faced with the protests, supporters of the bills have begun to respond. Sens. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, Jon Cornyn (R) of Texas, and Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri have distanced themselves from the Senate bill, PIPA.
While Senator Rubio says he remains committed to fighting piracy, he wrote on his Facebook page that he has "heard legitimate concerns about the impact the bill could have on access to the Internet and about a potentially unreasonable expansion of the federal government's power to impact the Internet."
The statement from the MPAA suggests that finding common ground could be difficult, if not nearly impossible, says Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, a business services firm that helps startups launch.
Nevertheless, the reality is that neither party may be wrong, she adds via e-mail. “They just have to work together (a nearly impossible feat)…. No one likes piracy, but the potential impact of SOPA is far more broad than the legislators likely anticipated.“
The biggest challenge, she notes, is that “the two sides are not speaking the same language.”