NEW YORK — New York’s Democratic senators on Wednesday said that they would remain supporters of a much-criticized anti-piracy bill while attempting to address the criticisms of the local tech community, who showed up in droves outside the their offices in midtown Manhattan to protest the bill.
Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), both of whom are listed as co-sponsors of the PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA), released the following statement at 12:30 pm, the same time that protest outside their office began:
“There are two important issues in this debate: continued freedom of expression on the Internet and the ability to block online piracy. We believe that both sides can come together on a solution that satisfies their respective concerns.
“We’ve had many discussions and held many meetings with all parts of the Internet community - from users, to members of the NY Tech Meet-up, to start-ups, to big Internet firms like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo - to hear their concerns regarding this proposed legislation, and we’ll continue those discussions.
“After constructive dialogue with many in the technology community, we have worked to make an important change in the bill regarding DNS provisions. We will continue to work with our colleagues to ensure a proper balance between stopping the theft of intellectual property and copyright infringement, and doing so without the unintended consequence of stifling or censoring the internet, which we strongly oppose. We have worked to make sure there are due process protections to ensure that legal activity over the Internet is not disrupted and that the web continues to be a place of innovation, intellectual freedom, and an unrestricted platform for the free exchange of ideas — and we welcome additional suggestions. While the threat to tens of thousands of New York jobs due to online piracy is real and must be addressed, it must be done in a way that allows the Internet and our tech companies to continue to flourish.”
Earlier, Schumer told the Journal News (via Capital NY) that the bill was dividing two critical New York constituencies — content producing companies and their employees, including many union workers, and Web companies, employees, developers and entrepreneurs. He said he hoped that the bill could be rewritten to find an amicable solution to both sides.
But those responses are unlikely to satisfy many members of NY Tech Meetup, a trade organization representing New York City’s thriving high-tech and Web industry that meets monthly to review start-up pitches and is coordinated on the website Meetup.com. An estimated 2,000 of them attended the orderly protest against the proposed PIPA in the Senate and its counterpart in the House, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).
Both bills would give the U.S. Attorney General the power to seek court orders to takedown foreign “rogue” websites accused of piracy in the U.S. by copyright holders such as Hollywood and the recording industry. American websites and companies would would then, in turn, be forced to cut off all links to the foreign websites accused of piracy. Critics charge that this would break the industry.
So although the industry organizations for Hollywood (the MPAA) and the recording industry (the RIAA) are big supporters of the bills as written, an increasing numer of people in the tech community in New York and throughout the U.S. are decidedly not, pointing out that the bills contain ambiguous language when it comes to exactly which websites would be affected.
Also, many of New York’s techies frankly don’t want the government meddling at all when it comes to the Internet, as they explained in Wednesday’s physical protest outside the offices of the two Democratic senators.
“What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like,” yelled Andrew Rasiej, the Chair of the Board of NY Tech Meetup, leading the crowd in a call-and-response chant.
Rasiej acted as master of ceremonies for the event, which included 18 different guest speakers in what NY Tech Meetup billed as an “emergency protest.” The protest was designed to voice the community’s complaints against the bills to the New York senators before a vote on PIPA in the Senate scheduled for January 24.
And the community turned out in full force, with members lining a barricaded area in front of the senators’ Midtown offices (3rd and 49th). Local and international media outlets converged on the scene, as well as numerous bloggers. Gawkers drew close to the protests as guest speakers rallied the crowd, yelling their own slogans over the public address system.
“P-I-P-A, please stop this bill today,” shouted Eli Pariser, chairman at MoveOn.org, who also took the occasion to announce he was launching his own new startup company.
“From a political perspective, what’s interesting about this bill is that outside Washington, you have groups like MoveOn, groups like RedState, the whole political spectrum agrees this is a bad idea,” Pariser told the crowd.
At times it was difficult to discern just who was attending the event as a protester and who was covering the protest, a blurring of distinctions perhaps evocative of the protesters’ exact point that the Web refuses to be pigeon-holed. TPM estimated a turnout of at least 1,000 protesters based on an eyeball scan of the proceedings, but NY Tech Meetup said in a statement that an estimated 2,000 people attended, more than the 1,635 who said they would go online.
Some protesters were easily distinguished by the signs they carried referencing Internet memes, pleading for the legislation to be scrapped to spare the lives of “LOL Cats.”
“What we will not stand for is our Senators supporting a bill that could hurt so many of us,” said one speaker.
Earlier, Rasiej told TPM that the organization would not be satisfied until the legislation in its current form was killed.
Following the event, NY Tech Meetup managing Jessica Lawrence told TPM that she was “extremely pleased with how the Meetup went.”
As she explained:
We had amazing turnout (it’s estimated that up to 2,000 people attended) and great speakers, and in general we think we achieved our goal of raising awareness and calling attention to the potential damage that SOPA and PIPA could cause.
We are asking people to still put calls into both Senator Gillibrand and Senator Schumer to make sure their voices are being heard. We’ll be working with the tech community to continue this fight against SOPA and PIPA going forward.”
Still, there was no denying the obvious point that Senators Schumer and Gillibrand failed to budge on their co-sponsorship of PIPA. Indeed, Lawrence told The Daily Beast that NY Tech Meetup had invited the senators to come and address the crowd and announce they were revoking their support, but that clearly did not happen. Meanwhile, numerous Republican co-sponsors of the legislation renounced their support throughout the day.
Staffers at Senator Gillibrand’s office confirmed that she would continue to support the legislation but also pointed out that the two New York senators had been among the most active proponents of dropping the hated DNS-blocking provisions of the bills, which were dropped or delayed last week. Those provisions would have forced U.S. Internet Service Providers to serve up error pages to users trying to access sites accused of piracy.
The full list of speakers at the NY Tech Meetup was a veritable “who’s who” of the New York tech scene, including:
Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup.com and Founder NY Tech Meetup
Andrew Rasiej, Chairman NY Tech Meetup
Nate Westheimer, Executive Director NY Tech Meetup
Jessica Lawrence, Managing Director NY Tech Meetup
Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus
John Perry Barlow, author of A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace
Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit
Andrew McLaughlin, Head of Global Public Policy and Government Affairs at Google
Eli Pariser, Board President at MoveOn.org, author of The Filter Bubble
Sara Chipps, co-founder of Girl Develop IT
Tim Karr, Senior Strategy Director at Free Press
David Segal, Executive Director at Demand Progress
Brad Burnham, Union Square Ventures
Antonia Abraham, Betaworks
Brad Feld, Foundry Group
Reshma Saujani, Deputy Advocate - City of New York
Aaron Swartz, Demand Progress
David Solomonoff, Internet Society of New York
Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, the website that arguably started the January 18 blackout by first announcing on January 10 it would go dark to protest the bills, also took the time after the event to talk to us about how he thought it went and what is coming next. Here’s our video of his comments:
Correction: This article originally misquoted Pariser as saying “the whole political spectrum agrees with me,” when in fact, he said “the whole political spectrum agrees this is a bad idea.”