Supporters of controversial anti-piracy legislation pushed back against planned protests on Wednesday, characterizing a blackout by Wikipedia and hundreds of other sites as mere publicity stunts.
But the defensive posture by industry backers of two bills in the House and the Senate only underscored the extent to which opponents have gained the upper hand in the P.R. battle over the legislation.
While supporters like MPAA chairman Chris Dodd say that the bills have been wildly mischaracterized as threats to free speech, the protests on Wednesday stand to draw more attention to the legislation than it has gotten before. Unfortunately for supporters, chances are that information will come from those who are dead set against it.
Dodd tried to turn the planned protest on its head, saying in a statement, “It is an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information use their services. It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today. It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests.”
Although the CEO of Twitter has questioned the wisdom of the blackout, users have been spreading news of th protest via hashtag. A spokeswoman for Google indicated that it would not be part of the blackout but that the search engine would post a message on its homepage.
“Like many businesses, entrepreneurs and Web users, we oppose these bills because there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking American companies to censor the Internet,” said a Google spokeswoman. “So tomorrow we will be joining many other tech companies to highlight the issue on our U.S. homepage.”
A spokesman for Fight for the Future, one of the organizers of the blackout, said about 7,000 sites have signed on to participate in one way or another. Among the names are Reddit, Mozilla and Boing Boing.
Internet firms on Tuesday announced the launch of a radio advertising campaign to protest the legislation. The NetCoalition, representing companies including Google. Amazon, Yahoo and EBay, said the spots would air in eight states including Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Ohio and Oklahoma.
Lawmakers who authored the anti-piracy legislation indicated that they would be willing to remove one of its most controversial provisions — one that would enable to government get a court order to block domain names of sites that traffic in infringing content — but it is far from clear what the future is even of a pared-down legislation.
Supporters of the bill started out with robust support in Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee, for instance, passed a version of the legislation unanimously last May. But opposition has mounted, and the tide seemed to turn after a marathon House Judiciary Committee hearing in December in which it was clear that a majority supported the legislation. Opponents like Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) used the exposure of the proceedings — which were webcast online — to make their case against the bill.
Perhaps even more important was that they offered so many amendments that House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), a key sponsor, was unable to complete the markup before Congress went on holiday recess.
Smith said Tuesday that plans are to resume in February, but during the delay opponents have accelerated their campaign against the legislation, and Issa has said that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has given him assurances that it would not reach the floor until there is “consensus.” The Senate version is still scheduled for a cloture vote next week, but support is showing signs of strain there, too. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a co-sponsor, now said he now opposes the legislation as written, and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) said that he would vote no. “The Internet is too important to our economy,” he said via tweet.
Momentum for opponents seemed to build over the weekend when the White House released a statement that, while calling for action to curb online piracy, criticized portions of the legislation and gave credence to opponents’ concerns that it could threaten free speech and cybersecurity.
Rupert Murdoch, who personally lobbied on Capitol Hill for the legislation, continued to pin blame on the Obama admninistration. He wrote in a tweet, “Big bipartisan majorities both houses sold out by POTUS for search engines. How about 2.2 m workers in entertainment industry? Piracy rules.” He said in another tweet that the blogosphere “has succeeded in terrorizing many senators and congressmen who previously committed.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney denied that the administration was choosing Silicon Valley over Hollywood, and on Tuesday said that “there are legitimate concerns on both sides and those need to be addressed.”
It’s likely that the legislation will be among the topics broached as Vice President Joseph Biden visits Los Angeles on Thursday and Friday to meet with business leaders and raise money for President Obama’s re-election campaign. But in the eyes of the studios, still stinging over the White House’s response, the most immediate step that the administration can take is to condemn Wednesday’s blackout.
Dodd said, “It is our hope that the White House and Congress will call on those who intend to stage this ‘blackout’ to stop the hyperbole and PR stunts and engage in meaningful efforts to combat piracy.”