Mr. Internet Goes to Washington

Senators and websites rally to urge congress to rework piracy legislation

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the Internet’s hero for his unflinching opposition to the two controversial anti-piracy laws, SOPA and PIPA, has been fond of playing the underdog in the fight. He has called his opponents, the content community lobby in Washington, D.C. (the Motion Picture Association of America and other big media companies), “powerful,” “tough,” “savvy” and well-entrenched. “We’re fighting above our weight,” Wyden has said.

But last week’s counter-strike on the Internet showed just the opposite. The Web-led protest of the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act and its Senate version, the Protect Intellectual Property Act, marshalled 115,000 websites, including Wikipedia, Craigslist and WordPress. Blacked-out sites and advocacy messages on the Internet rallied 13 million, according to Fight for the Future, a protest organizer. Google’s petition alone drew 7 million signatures.

As many as 36 senators either came out against PIPA or urged that the legislation be reworked. As a result, the Web lobby stopped the movement of seemingly unstoppable bills from sailing through Congress. By the end of the week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) postponed Tuesday’s PIPA vote. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, also stalled, delaying “consideration” of SOPA “until there is wider agreement on a solution.” (He had earlier announced he would resume markup of SOPA in February.)

Both bills are back on the drawing board, and both sides will need to seek a compromise if anything is to get through Congress. “The process was so flawed, we had to reach outside Washington to make this happen,” said Markham Erickson, a partner with Holch & Erickson and the director of NetCoalition, which represents big technology companies like Google and Yahoo.

If the Internet protest proved anything, it was that Silicon Valley is no longer a bunch of naive nerds that don’t understand Washington. Last year, Google, which has strong ties with the White House, dropped $9.7 million on lobbying Congress, according to the company’s lobbying disclosure reports. “For once it is clear about Google’s clout on the Internet and how they can manipulate information,” said Mike Nugent, executive director of Creative America, which represents major entertainment unions and media companies pushing for anti-piracy legislation.

Last week’s events also say something about the culture of Internet users. “A lot of this was bottom-up, and that was maybe a little scary,” said Larry Downes, a senior fellow with TechFreedom, which opposed the bills. “We’re definitely through the looking glass, and no one knows what’s on the other side.”