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SOPA and PIPA votes postponed after week of protest

By | Published on Monday 23 January 2012


US Congress confirmed on Friday that votes on both SOPA and PIPA, the two sets of anti-piracy proposals that have been working their way through the American legislature for sometime, would be postponed indefinitely while the politicians behind the two bills have a rethink.

The announcement was no surprise after a week in which opponents to the two acts took their protests to a new level, led by Wikipedia’s 24 hour black out of its English language pages, a move which saw several congressmen who had previously backed SOPA or PIPA distancing themselves from the proposals.

As much previously reported, both SOPA and PIPA would have introduced new powers that would allow copyright owners to secure fast-track injunctions forcing internet service providers to block access to non-US websites that exist primarily to infringe intellectual property rights. SOPA would also have given the Attorney General the power to force search engines to remove said sites from its search results, and to ban American ad sales and credit companies from doing business with the companies that own blacklisted services.

The aim is to help the American content industries stop mainstream web users from accessing infringing sites outside the direct jurisdiction of the US courts and authorities, ie online operations which, unlike with MegaUpload, do not have servers based in the States. With MegaUpload, of course, the American authorities were able to directly shut down the allegedly infringing firm’s main server hub, which was based in Virginia.

Opponents, however, feared that the powers SOPA and PIPA would have put in place were far too wide-ranging, and could be used to target web firms whose operations are fundamentally legitimate, but which, by carrying automated search results or allowing user contributions or uploads, may routinely host or link to some infringing content. It was unclear how such operations could avoid being targeted, and, given the speed with which sites could be blocked, how any appeals process would work.

Opposition from the tech community, and some in the artist community, had been building for some time in the US, but went truly global last week thanks to the Wiki protest. On Friday Harry Reid in the US Senate said he was postponing any vote on PIPA, while the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Lamar Smith, likewise said he was halting SOPA discussions until there was wider agreement on a way forward among affected stakeholders.

Reid confirmed “recent events” were behind his decision to put off any PIPA vote, while Smith told reporters: “It is clear that we need to revisit the approach on how best to address the problem of foreign thieves that steal and sell American inventions and products”. Various other congressmen went public with their concerns about the anti-piracy measures late last week, echoing similar concerns expressed by the White House before the Wiki protest.

All that said, neither PIPA nor SOPA are totally dead, with both houses of Congress postponing rather than cancelling outright votes on measures to help content owners to enforce their copyrights online. The music and movie industries will continue to lobby on the issue of web-blocking, though their political allies in Washington will presumably propose they put a bit more effort into crafting safeguards to satisfy legit online operations that they would not be hindered by any new web-block system, and that claims of infringement by rights owners would be subject to proper scrutiny.

But Reid said he was optimistic that, given time, new anti-piracy rules that dealt with the web sector’s concerns could be developed, telling reporters: “There is no reason that the legitimate issues raised by many about this bill cannot be resolved”. He called for a redraft involving all parties, so that a new bill could be put to Congress that balanced “protecting Americans’ intellectual property, and maintaining openness and innovation on the internet”.

The Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, Sue Gardner, welcomed the two announcements, but noted that discussions about new anti-piracy measures would continue, and urged Congress to remember the views of the Wiki protesters when doing so. She told reporters: “The Wikimedia Foundation welcomes these developments. This is another step towards the ultimate destruction of these two pieces of proposed legislation. But let’s be clear, these bills are not dead. They will return, and when they do, they must not harm the interests of the hundreds of millions of people who contribute to the free and open internet”.