House Holds One-Sided Hearing on Piracy Bill

Witness deck stacked in favor of controversial legislation

Opponents to the Stop Online Piracy Act and its Senate counterpart—including the nation's biggest Internet companies, like Google and Facebook—did everything they could to get their voices heard in advance of a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill Wednesday. Press conferences, letters, petitions, full-page ads in The Washington Post—it all fell on deaf ears. 

The hearing clearly went in favor of proponents of SOPA; no surprise, considering the witness deck was stacked five to one in favor of the bill. Even a last-ditch letter from a bipartisan coalition of 11 members of Congress spanning the divide from Tea Party to liberal Democrat might not be enough to counter the pro-bill lobbying efforts of deep-pocketed organizations like the Motion Picture Association of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. SOPA, introduced just three weeks ago by Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., is on the fast track.

Right from the start of the hearing, members of the committee from both parties signaled they would have little patience for those opposing the bill if they didn't come with suggestions for cracking down on piracy. Both Smith and Conyers slammed Google in their opening statements, before the company’s copyright counsel, Katherine Oyama, even had a chance to testify.

“One of the companies represented here today has sought to obstruct the committee’s consideration of bipartisan legislation,” Smith said. “Perhaps this should come as no surprise given that Google just settled a federal criminal investigation into the company’s active promotion of rogue foreign websites that pushed illegal prescription and counterfeit drugs on American consumers. . . . Given Google’s record, their objection to authorizing a court to order a search engine to not steer consumers to foreign rogue sites is more easily understood.”

Committee members also took exception to some of the extreme language and dire predictions from the opposition. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., asked opponents to “set aside the hyperbole" and said, "While I appreciate the stakeholders care about the First Amendment and other rights, it’s clear to me this is about the bottom line. Counterfeiting and piracy make money and lots of it."

Committee members spent much of the hearing grilling Google’s Oyama on the company’s commitment to shutting down piracy. That finally changed after nearly two hours when two representatives from the company's home state of California, Republican Darrell Issa and Democrat Zoe Lofgren, both of whom oppose SOPA, got a chance to balance out what had for the most part been a one-sided hearing.

“I don’t think this is a balanced story,” Lofgren said. “We have no technical expertise on this panel today.” Lofgren also addressed the attacks several members of the committee made on the rhetoric of the SOPA opponents. “It hasn’t generally been the policy of this committee to dismiss the views of those we are going to regulate. Impugning the motives of the critics instead of the substance is a mistake.”

Issa, who co-wrote a letter with Lofgren last week opposing SOPA, is working with Lofgren to craft alternative legislation. “I object to this bill because it fails to use tools that we currently have at our disposal. We have a court of jurisdiction,” he said, referring to the International Trade Commission.

Members who were sympathetic to some of the concerns opponents have with the legislation were frustrated that they weren’t being given alternatives. “I would love it if you and Public Knowledge and CEA would draft something. . . . Give us some specifics because the DMCA Digital Millennium Copyright Act] doesn’t do the job,” said Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif.

Lofgren said she doesn't think SOPA can be salvaged. "It's a mess," she said.