Google, Wikipedia and Others Take Part In Web Blackout to Protest Rogue Website Bills

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By Tamlin H. Bason  

Sensing that the both the House and the Senate rogue website bills may be on the ropes, opponents of the legislation went forward with an internet blackout Jan. 18.

Users who visited on Jan. 18 did not see the search engine's logo but instead were greeted with a large black box that completely covered the Google mark. If users clicked on the box, they were redirected to a website detailing the problems, as viewed by Silcon Valley, with the House's Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R. 3261) and the Senate's Protect IP Act (S.968). With a simple click users could then e-mail their representatives to complain about the legislation.

Google's search engine, however, remained operational during the internet blackout. The same was not true for thousands of other websites that completely shuttered in opposition to the bills. Wikipedia, the social media website, and were some of the more popular sites to participate in the blackout.

In a conference call Jan. 17, Josh Levy, the internet campaign director for the advocacy group Free Press, said the blackout was “by far the biggest revolt that we have seen online against legislation like this.” Levy added, “It shows that when the internet is threatened, everybody who depends on the open internet will come together to fight for it.”

During the same call Erik Martin, general manager of Reddit, said that the removal of certain controversial components of the bill would not be enough to save the bill in the eyes of many in the technology community. The problem, he said, was that Silicon Valley had no input during the drafting of the bill. “I think we need to go back and start over and have both sides come together,” Martin said.

“I applaud the Internet community, including the thousands of blogs and websites that have decided to go dark today, for participating in our democracy and opening up the debate on legislation to the public,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in a statement Jan. 18.

Issa is a staunch opponent of both bills and is a co-sponsor of the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act that was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) Dec. 17 (245 PTD, 12/21/11). The OPEN Act, which is described by Wyden and Issa as an alternative to the pending bills as it would amend the Tariff Act of 1930 in order to grant jurisdiction over rogue websites to the International Trade Committee, has not yet been introduced in the House.

Blackout Derided as ‘Publicity Stunt.'

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a leading sponsor of H.R. 3261, harshly criticized Wikipedia for participating in the blackout.

“It is ironic that a website dedicated to providing information is spreading misinformation about the Stop Online Piracy Act,” Smith said in a statement placed on the House Judiciary Committee's website. “The bill will not harm Wikipedia, domestic blogs or social networking sites. This publicity stunt does a disservice to its users by promoting fear instead of facts. Perhaps during the blackout, Internet users can look elsewhere for an accurate definition of online piracy.”

In a Jan. 18 editorial the Wall Street Journal called the blackout a “cyber tantrum,” and urged Congress to consider the Protect IP Act, which it claimed was “far more modest” than critics claim.

Support for Bills Waning

On Dec. 17, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) filed cloture on the motion to proceed to S.968. The cloture vote is scheduled for Jan. 24.

The Protect IP Act was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee May 26. Immediately after that vote, Wyden issued a statement announcing that he would place a hold on the bill's move to the Senate floor, thus necessitating Reid's cloture motion.

Forty senators had signed on as co-sponsors to the bill when it was introduced May 12 (94 PTD, 5/16/11), and the Judiciary Committee voted 10-0 to send the bill on to the full Senate May 26 (103 PTD, 5/27/11).

In recent days, however, enthusiasm for the bill seems to be waning.

On Dec. 17 six republicans from the Judiciary Committee, all of whom voted in favor of the bill, sent a letter to Reid asking him to delay the Jan. 24 cloture vote.

The letter, which was signed by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and four other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said “for both substantive and procedural reasons, the process at this point is moving too quickly.”

Then on Jan. 18, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who was a co-sponsor of the bill, used his Facebook page to officially announce that he was withdrawing his support of the legislation. Rubio said that his reversal was promoted by “legitimate concerns about the impact the bill could have on access to the Internet and about a potentially unreasonable expansion of the federal government's power to impact the Internet.”

In addition to losing support in the Senate, S.968 also apparently does not have the support of the White House. The administration said Jan. 14 that while it wants Congress to pass rogue website legislation in the coming year, it would not support legislation that allowed for DNS blocking or created a danger of censorship.

Although Smith announced Jan. 14 that he would strip the DNS blocking requirement out of SOPA, the DNS language remains in the Senate's version. Leahy has indicated that he will introduce a manager's amendment to S.968 that will address the DNS concerns, but to date no such amendment has been introduced.

Bill Sponsors Push Onward

But despite the eroding support, both Smith and Leahy have indicated that they have no plans to put the breaks on their controversial bills.

Smith said that the SOPA markup will continue in February.

“I am committed to continuing to work with my colleagues in the House and Senate to send a bipartisan bill to the White House that saves American jobs and protects intellectual property,” Smith said in a statement Jan. 17.

After Reid declined to postpone the cloture vote, Leahy issued a statement Jan. 17 urging internet companies to lay off the theatrics and instead focus on working together to pass meaningful legislation to address the problem.

“The Senate will debate this important bill, which has been pending on the Senate's calendar since May, next week,” Leahy said. “I hope all Senators, and all of our partners in the Internet ecosystem, will come together to help create American jobs, promote America's economy and protect American consumers.”