Updated 3:47 pm ET, Tuesday, November 15
The hearing itself has become controversial, with some critics calling it a dog-and-pony show that won’t feature any meaningful dissent as orchestrated by the bill’s Congressional sponsors, including Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and ranking member Rep. John Coyners (D-MI), who are also those in charge of the hearing.
The official list of witnesses currently scheduled for the hearing include five speakers, one each from the U.S. Copyright Office, Pfizer, the Motion Picture Association of America, MasterCard, Google and the AFL-CIO. As TechDirt’s Mike Masnick put it: “[T]he Committee is … so afraid to actually hear about the real opposition that they’ve lined up five pro-SOPA speakers and only one ‘against.’” (That one being Google.)
We’ve reached out to the House Judiciary Committee for its response to that charge and will update when we receive it.
SOPA seeks to give the government more power to sanction the forfeiture of domain names of websites where users are accused of trafficking in pirated content.
It would also hold advertisers and affiliated websites, including search engines, accountable for not severing ties with websites accused of hosting that content. Some of the nation’s largest copyright holding companies, represented by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) favor the bill as long overdue, necessary legislation to cut down on piracy.
Critics in government, law, industry and advocacy groups, though, contend the legislation is far too broadly written and overreaching it its scope to be effectual, and would actually make the Internet less safe, in addition to having a deleterious effect on the online economy.
And they’ve launched a full-fledged PR counter-offensive of the bill.
Two separate public letters from House lawmakers, one authored by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and signed by 10 other lawmakers, and the other by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), have been written against the bill in the past two weeks.
A consortium of nine of America’s (and some of the world’s) largest Web companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and AOL on Tuesday published an open letter to lawmakers, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), ranking member John Conyers (D-MI) who co-sponsored the House legislation, as well as to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) and ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who cosponsored related legislation, the PROTECT-IP Act, in the Senate.
The letter states that while the companies support the bills’ stated goals, “providing additional enforcement tools to combat foreign ‘rogue’ websites that are dedicated to copyright infringement or counterfeiting…We cannot support these bills as written…”
Specifically, the Web companies argue that SOPA, as written, would gut the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA), which has served as the guiding piece of legislating in settling most online copyright disputes since it was enacted in 1998. (That’s how Google beat Viacom’s $1 billion copyright lawsuit against YouTube in June 2010.)
“We are very concerned that the bills as written would seriously to provide a safe harbor for Internet companies that act in good faith to remove infringing content from their sites,” the letter states.
That assessment is echoed by some 110 law professors from distinguished institutions around the country and in Puerto Rico, who signed a letter opposing the PROTECT-IP act in July (the Senate version of the legislation was introduced in May).
The letter’s primary authors — Stanford’s Mark A. Lemley, Elon’s David S. Levine, and Temple’s David Post — on Tuesday drafted a new page against SOPA and recirculated the letter.
“While there are some differences between SOPA and PROTECT-‐IP, nothing in SOPA makes any effort to address the serious constitutional, innovation, and foreign policy concerns that we expressed in that letter,” the law professors write. “Indeed, in many respects SOPA is even worse than PROTECT-‐IP.”
The web authors point to three areas of concern: That the bill alters copyright infringement standards online in such a way that would put YouTube and other media hosting sites at risk for lawsuits, that it gives the government the ability to take down a website with nothing more than a link to a “rogue” website, and the fact that advertisers and payment companies would be forced to sever ties with websites even suspected of hosting users’ who pirated material.
Moreover, online privacy and digital rights advocacy groups including Public Knowledge, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, TechFreedom and the Competitive Enterprise Institute also on Monday released an open letter to Reps. Smith and Conyers decrying that Wednesday’s hearing will include no “public interest representatives,” namely those “focused on how real-world implementation of the bill will affect the due process and free speech rights of law-abiding Internet users.”
Public Knowledge, the EFF and various other groups, including civil liberties advocacy organization Demand Progress have also launched a Web-based protest set to coincide with the hearing. “American Censorship Day” invites websites against the bill to “censor” their own logos as a form of protest against the bill, using a code developed by the groups that puts a black bar over any website’s logo.
Demand Progress has also set up a page allowing users to login with Facebook and sign a petition to the House Judiciary Committee saying “The so-called “Stop Online Piracy Act” will kill innovation and undermine free speech rights. You need to give the hundreds of thousands of Americans who’ve spoken out against it a chance to make our case at this week’s hearings.”
With so many staunch criticisms of both the legislative process and the legislation itself, it might seem as though SOPA has no public supporters, but that’s hardly the truth. The House Judiciary Committee has rounded up the bill’s myriad supporters and their associated statements here, including the MPAA, the RIAA, Comcast/NBCUniversal, Viacom, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the National Songwriters Association and the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, among others.
And as tech entrepreneur and critic Andrew Keen pointed out in a well-argued piece published on TechCrunch on Monday:
…This isn’t just a legislative initiative supported by corporations. 43 State Attorney Generals, the US Conference of Mayors, the AFL-CIO and The National Consumer League are also in favor. And so is US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who early this month, in defense of legislation that seeks to make it impossible for American Internet users to access criminal foreign websites, wrote that there “is no contradiction between intellectual property rights protection and enforcement and ensuring freedom of expression on the Internet.”
And as Keen later lists off other Web and tech companies in support of the bill, including Go Daddy and the Business Software Alliance, “whose members include Microsoft, Adobe & Symantec, ISPs such as Verizon and AT&T, and even payment processors like Visa who might not love the legislation but recognize that something has to be done online to cut off foreign criminals from the American domestic market.”
However, as Techdirt’s Masnick quickly fired back at Keen’s column, tweeting on Tuesday that Keen “took the lobbyist’s talking points on that, and didn’t question a single one. Nearly every one is misleading or wrong.”
Wednesday’s hearing is designed to “examine issues” that relate to the bill. We’ll see how many of the criticisms come up. Stay tuned.
Late update: A judiciary aide emailed TPM the following statement on behalf of the House Judiciary Committee, rebutting criticism that its process for selecting witnesses was abnormal or unfair:
“Throughout the legislative process, we have met with groups and companies with different views on how to address rogue websites. Earlier this year, the Committee held a hearing on the problem of rogue websites at which the public interest group perspective was represented by the Center for Democracy and Technology. We also heard from Floyd Abrams—a well-known constitutional scholar—who affirmed that the Stop Online Piracy Act is constitutional under the first amendment and provides sufficient due process. And tomorrow, we will hear from a representative of Google, which opposes legislative efforts to rein in rogue websites. Assertions that the legislative process has been stacked against the opposition are inconsistent with the facts.
“This bill has strong bipartisan support in the House Judiciary Committee. The theft of America’s IP costs the U.S. economy more than $100 billion annually and results in the loss of thousands of American jobs. We must protect America’s intellectual property from rogue websites. The Stop Online Piracy Act helps stop the flow of revenue to rogue websites and ensures that the profits from American innovations go to American innovators.”
It should also be pointed out that Republican and Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee have customarily invited witnesses proportional to the party-line support for any given bill, with a minimum 1 witness for the opposition. But because the SOPA bill enjoys bipartisan support, the witnesses chosen in this case are reflective of the actual level of support from both parties.