WASHINGTON -- Supporters of a pair of controversial anti-piracy bills working their way through Congress anticipate that the measures are heading toward their endgame, following word from the sponsors of the legislation that some of the most objectionable provisions would be dropped.
Slideshow: Samples of SOPA Blackout Sites
The bills in question, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House, and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), a slightly different version in the Senate, have together emerged as a lightning rod that has sparked a heated debate, broadly pitting content industries such as Hollywood and music against a litany of Web companies and open Internet advocates.
State of the Net
"Despite all of my best efforts, the past year has been dominated by really a bitter war between Silicon Valley and the content industry," Paul Brigner, senior vice president and chief technology policy officer at the Motion Picture Association of America, said Tuesday here at the annual State of the Net conference.
SOPA sites in the middle of a markup before the House Judiciary Committee, while the full Senate is set to take up PIPA in a floor debate Jan. 24.
Opponents warn that new enforcement mechanisms meant to empower copyright and trademark owners to assert their intellectual property against "rogue" foreign websites dedicated to the trafficking of pirated content will inevitably stifle legitimate sites, while exposing Internet users to greater privacy and security risks, amounting to a form of zero-sum censorship that would ultimately have little impact on curbing piracy.
Wednesday's planned protest comes just days after the bill's sponsors, Texas Republican Lamar Smith in the House and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in the Senate, indicated that they would remove language that could direct Internet service providers to block offending websites at the naming and routing level. Those provisions had provoked vigorous opposition from a large group of Internet innovators, entrepreneurs and security advocates, who warned in a letter to members of Congress that such an approach posed a fundamental threat to the security of the Internet.
"The reality is today that DNS filtering is really off the table for this legislation," Brigner said, offering the hopeful prediction that "this legislation's going through."
Brigner's organization has been among the most prominent lobbies backing tighter copyright protections, and while it was supportive of the DNS filtering provisions, it continues to back SOPA and PIPA without them.
The groundswell of opposition to the measures recently elicited a response from the Obama administration, with the president's top advisors on technology, cybersecurity and intellectual property issuing a joint statement urging Congress to pass legislation this year that would crack down on foreign sites that are beyond the reach of current U.S. laws, while at the same time warning against any measure that would compromise security or invite censorship of lawful sites.
Opponents of SOPA and PIPA generally acknowledge that piracy and the trafficking of knock-off goods such as pharmaceuticals are real problems in need of an address, though they vary in their assessment of the scope.
"One of the things that I think will be helpful will be getting useful, real data on how big the problems are," said Stephen Crocker, CEO of the file-sharing software firm Shinkuro and chairman of the board at ICANN. "There's mixed data on this frankly."
Baker and other critics of the IP bills fear that the indications from the lead sponsors that they will scrap the DNS blocking language could amount to a Pyrrhic victory, as they worry that those provisions will resurface down the road. When he learned that the DNS issue had been shelved, Baker said the news "[made] us feel good for about five microseconds and then we are sober enough to understand that this is just a moment of time."
And content companies can be expected to continue to press for tougher technical measures to combat piracy, even if they won't be included in any bills that move in this session.
That much is evident in their opposition to a much more moderate antipiracy bill that is expected to drop in the House and Senate this week. The so-called OPEN Act would address foreign-based havens for piracy by leaning on payment providers such as Visa and PayPal to cut off their flow of funds. That proposal has won the endorsement of some of the Web companies that have been staunch in their opposition to SOPA and PIPA, including Google and Facebook, while representatives of content companies contend that it doesn't go far enough.
"We need more than just following the money and addressing the search results," Brigner said. "There needs to be some indication that when you try to go to these rogue sites that you shouldn't be there," he added, indicating his organization's intent to continue to fight for technical restrictions beyond the current legislative battle. "The real debate is just beginning." Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.