Now a Soap Opera, Heavily-Backed SOPA Copyright Bill Gets New Bipartisan and Popular Opposition

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The “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) had looked set for a quick and quiet passing through the House after it was introduced late last month. A string of Democrats and Republicans, and various big-media affiliated interest groups had lined up behind it, while the internet had mostly stayed on the sidelines. But a major outcry this week — and especially today — could change that.

The bill, which has been presented by its supporters as a bipartisan effort to punish “rogue” infringing sites, is now being questioned by members of both parties for the potential damage it could also do to innovation. That’s on top of a concerted effort by major web companies to communicate their opposition, via their own sites and an open letter to Congress yesterday (that’s being run as a full-page ad in The New York Times).

Popular opposition has continued to mount, led by web services and various advocacy groups under the banner of American Censorship Day. Among other efforts, Tumblr censored user dashboards to show what users might not be able to publish under SOPA, and Mozilla and a range of publications put “stop censorship” banners across their logos.

Among numerous other issues, SOPA and its Senate counterpart, the PROTECT IP Act, would allow copyright holders to easily obtain court orders to stop US payment and ad providers from doing business with foreign sites, force search engines to block links to allegedly infringing sites, and require domain service providers to block domains of allegedly infringing sites from being accessible. Be sure to check out Devin Coldewey’s excellent teardown of SOPA and PROTECT IP for more details on why we and many (but not all) other internet users are opposed.

Six witnesses, mostly hand-picked supporters of the bill, spoke before the House Judiciary Committee today in a 3.5 hour session that ended up revealing confusion and disagreement among the committee members and their peers.

Google, the lone witness fully opposing the bill, was characterized by chairman and bill sponsor Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and others as being pro-piracy. But a top colleague, Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), responded to the hearing by shooting down the bipartisan consensus theme.

“What [lawmakers are] realizing is there are so many unintended consequences that they can’t just use Google as a piñata and bash on it here,” he told The Hill. “I don’t believe this bill has any chance on the House floor. I think it’s way too extreme, it infringes on too many areas that our leadership will know is simply too dangerous to do in its current form.”

Later in the day, he tweeted that he’s working on a separate plan designed to combat copyright infringement:

That solution, as he had sketched out in a press conference Tuesday together with Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), would be to create a complaint process for copyright infringement similar to the International Trade Commission’s patent infringement investigation system.

More cracks also started to appear among the bill’s proponents. Rep. Dan Lungren, who heads the Homeland Security subcommittee on cybersecurity, said at the hearing that SOPA and PROTECT IP “undercut the real effort that would practically help us secure the Internet” through Domain Name System Security Extensions. DNSSEC provide a set of authentication extensions to the internet’s domain name system, so web sites can certify that they are who they say they are. According to security experts, the technology would be broken if SOPA required domain service providers to block domains.

Smith’s response to the issue was that “I’m not a technical expert on this,” followed by “I’m trying to ferret this out.” None of his panelists understood the issue either. It’s concerning that he hadn’t done this research before sponsoring the bill.