A U.S. congressman from Texas is behind controversial legislation that some contend will dismantle the future of the Internet. The Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, seeks to punish foreign sites for copyright infringement and the sale of counterfeit goods online and to protect intellectual property by expanding powers of law enforcement officials. Critics of the legislation see it as an attack on user-generated websites, an impediment to Web innovation and a form of censorship.
House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), architect and primary supporter of the Act, is drawing fierce criticism from bipartisan lawmakers and most vehemently, a growing number in the tech community, including Google, Twitter, Wikipedia, eBay and Facebook as well as Web and Internet service founders, human rights groups, academics and venture capitalists. Public interest organizations opposing the Act range in diversity from the ACLU to the Tea Party Patriots. A comprehensive list of SOPA opposers can be found here (PDF).
In addition to the Act itself, some are criticizing Smith for reversing his position on regulating the Internet, as he once adamantly contested government intervention. While Smith criticized government intervention during previous debates over net neutrality, his tune has since changed along with contributions from the entertainment industry, the sector most visibly championing the contentious legislation – points out TechDirt via Julian Sanchez.
“I want a vibrant Internet just like they do,” said Smith in a 2006 C-Net article. “Our disagreement is about how to achieve that. They say let the government dictate it…I urge my colleagues to reject government regulation of the Internet.”
In an interview, Smith told The Texas Independent he doesn’t see any connection or parallel between his stance on Internet regulation when it comes to net neutrality and his current support for SOPA. The latter is enforcement of law, he said, not regulation.
But tech experts, like those at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, disagree. The digital rights organization says SOPA is a massive attempt at government regulation that will censor free speech and stifle innovation online.
“This is without question government regulation of the Internet,” says Parker Higgins of the EFF. “The Act is allowing government to ask Americans to take on abstract costs like losing free speech rights as well as actual costs to implement and be in compliance with the legislation.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the Senate version of SOPA will cost taxpayers some $47 million over the 2012-2016 period. Nearly 50 new hires by the Department of Justice would be tasked with investigative responsibilities under the bill, costing taxpayers $10 million a year.
Fingers are also being pointed to the Republican incumbent’s title as “Hollywood’s favorite Republican,” drawing in notably large sums in campaign cash from Hollywood–the industry most heavily backing the legislation–adding fuel to the fire for the anti-SOPA camp. Sanchez notes that in 2006 the technology industry led Smith’s contributions, donating more than $95,000 to his campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Today, the same industry–categorized as “Computers/Internet”–did not break the top five most generous sectors to the incumbent’s push for reelection. Hollywood, leading the charge to push SOPA through, has replaced tech as Smith’s top contributor in the 2011-2012 cycle, according to the Center. Listed as “TV/Movies/Music,” the industry has generated more than $59,000 for his reelection effort. The Congressman is also listed as the top House recipient of donations by commercial TV and radio stations. Overall, the entertainment industry has put up $91 million in SOPA lobbying dollars so far.
Smith is quick to rebuke censure from the Internet and tech community, contending a “manager’s amendment” modified the bill text to alleviate key concerns. Tech giants like Google have a “vested interest” in opposing SOPA, argued Smith, as they financially benefit from rogue sites. SOPA would curtail billions of dollars and thousands of jobs lost due to counterfeit goods and illegal online purchasing activity, he said.
“Bloggers, Facebook and other opponents can’t point to specific language in the bill that would hurt the Internet,” he said. “They are looking for ways to weaken the bill that would make the prevention of theft a lot more difficult.”
“My question for opponents is why don’t they want to protect American consumers and businesses?” said Smith.
But critics are calling the Texas Congressman’s purported evidence in support of SOPA “false and misleading,” including job creation numbers, the monetary impact of counterfeit goods on the global economy, mislabeling legal websites as “rogue” and the use of data sourced by groups with ties to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and big media companies.
And while the amendment does address some of the concerns raised, Higgins said, it’s not a compromise.
“There are still a lot of big problems with the Act,” he said. “It’s not good legislation. Vague language will undermine cybersecurity initiatives, hurt innovation in the states and would effectively silence legitimate speech.”
“If he is saying that no one can point to ‘specific language’ in the bill that would hurt the Internet, then that is just willful blindness,” Higgins said.
For instance, the bill continues to encourage Domain Name System (DNS) blocking and filtering–a practice that mimics what is used to block sites in Internet-repressive China and Iran. Critics say DNS blocking threatens the “core of cybersecurity and global Internet freedom.”
The Texas Independent previously reported on Smith’s call to ‘carefully review’ the controversial and now abandoned AT&T/T-Mobile merger while generating more than $69,800 from AT&T’s PACs, making the company his second-largest benefactor over his career. Last year, the DOJ blocked the merger for being anti-competitive and not in the pubic interest.
House consideration of SOPA was postponed last month due to protests and amendments, but its Senate counterpart, The Protect IP Act, may see discussion by the end of January. A hearing that brings together tech experts and industry leaders to review the effects of both Acts is scheduled for January 18. Higgins says the much-needed gathering is being dubbed, “the meeting the Judiciary won’t hold.”
(Image of Rep. Lamar Smith: Wikimedia Commons)