Updated 6:14 pm ET, Thursday, January 12
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), one of the most prominent and outspoken critics of the House’s much-reviled Stop Online Piracy Act and its sister in the Senate, PROTECT IP, made waves around the Web monday by announcing that he will be leading a hearing on Wednesday, January 18 to give “technical experts” and critics of the bills the chance to testify before the House Oversight Committee, of which he is the chairman.
“An open Internet is crucial to American job creation, government operations, and the daily routines of Americans from all walks of life,” Issa said in a statement. “The public deserves a full discussion about the consequences of changing the way Americans access information and communicate on the Internet today.”
Among those invited to testify at the hearing were a number of high-profile SOPA/PIPA critics in the private sector, including Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.
“It’s now public. I’m headed back to DC to address the U.S. House Oversight & Government Reform Committee about SOPA & PIPA. Wish me luck,” Ohanian posted on Google Plus on Monday.
SOPA and PIPA, of course, would allow the government to impose DNS blocking and search engine takedowns of links to foreign websites and webpages accused of piracy by copyright holders — namely Hollywood and the recording industry, both of whom are among SOPA’s most strident supporters.
But critically, neither the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), nor PROTECT IP (PIPA) were actually mentioned by name in the official hearing announcement posted on the website of House Oversight Committee.
Instead, the official announcement states that the hearing is being held “in light of policy proposals affecting the way taxpayers access the Internet,” and will “examine the potential impact of Domain Name Service (DNS) and search engine blocking on American cyber-security, jobs and the Internet community.”
That’s not, pardon the pun, an oversight as much as it is a deliberate omission. According to TPM’s conversation with staffers of the House Oversight Committee, the hearing will not cover any specific proposed legislation — neither SOPA, nor PIPA. That’s not the “point” of the hearing, according to staffers.
Rather, in accordance with its mandate as being the arbiter of “oversight of virtually everything government does,” the Oversight Committee is holding the hearing to examine the issues of search and DNS blocking from a broader perspective than has been covered so far in hearings on SOPA and PIPA held by the House Judiciary Committee.
“What Oversight can bring to the table is the cross-cutting nature of what it can explore,” a staffer told TPM, “When there are issues that cut across many committees, we can bring folks together to figure out how they will impact them all. We’re like the Congressional research arm.”
But the question remains just what precisely the hearing will accomplish.
Only the Judiciary Committee hearing can actually advance or table SOPA at this point, not the Oversight Committee, which has only limited legislative power anyway, as staffers confirmed to TPM.
Only six members of the House sit on both the Judiciary and Oversight Committees, including Issa and Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Mike Quigley (D-IL), Jim Jordan (R-OH), Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Mike Ross (D-AR). Issa and Chaffetz are prominent critics of SOPA, while Ross is a supporter.
Reps. Quigley, Jordan and Gowdy haven’t yet taken a position on SOPA, so the Oversight hearing and testimony could presumably sway them to vote against it in the Judiciary Committee, but that seems like an awful lot of fuss for just three representatives to move against the bill, especially given supporters of SOPA currently outnumber avowed opponents by 10.
Most problematically for SOPA critics, the Judiciary Committee is controlled by Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), the lead sponsor of SOPA, which is why many critics decried the initial Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill in November as unfair. Well, that and the fact that that hearing included mostly witnesses in favor of the Stop Online Piracy Act, and no technical experts.
The Oversight Committee’s hearing on Wednesday, January 18, would seem to be an effort to correct at least those disparities, with most of the witnesses listed having already come out against SOPA and most of them being “technical experts” in the sense they work for Web-related companies.
Still, it remains to be seen whether their testimony to Oversight will actually be allowed to be admitted into the Judiciary Committee.
“The Oversight hearing is separate from anything in the House Judiciary Committee. They are different Committees with different rules,” a House Judiciary staffer told TPM.
Perhaps most troubling of all, staffers of at the Judiciary Committee told TPM that Chairman Issa did not reach out to Chairman Smith and that there had not been any discussions between the two men, nor the two committee staffs about Issa’s hearing, at least to their knowledge. Updated: As it turns out, Issa did, in fact, on Monday send out letters to Smith and other House Committee Chairs inviting them or any of the members of their committees to attend Wednesday’s hearing in person or to submit written questions. Issa staffers told TPM that they could not say at this time whether any of the other Committee Chairs or members had decided to attend.
If Issa is holding his own hearing simply to bash SOPA, it is unlikely that Smith, who, as Chairman of Judiciary, actually controls the progress of SOPA through the House at this point, will be sympathetic to Smith’s efforts to introduce said testimony to Judiciary.
More to the point, Smith has yet to actually decide when to resume the SOPA markup hearing and whether to hold any additional Judiciary hearings on the potential technical and cybersecurity effects of SOPA, as he said he would consider doing. Now that Issa has thrown down the gauntlet and launched a technical hearing of his own, perhaps Smith won’t be as inclined to hold any of his own in Judiciary.
There’s at least an argument to be made that the Oversight hearing will at least raise the public profile of SOPA and PIPA and if that happens, more voters may end up pressuring lawmakers to vote against it.
Indeed, the Oversight Committee Hearing gained even more attention after Reddit’s administrators on Tuesday announced they would be taking the so-called nuclear option, “blacking out” the entire website in protest of the proposed legislation.
Instead of the typical chaotic plethora of user-posted links, images, comics, discussions and other content that is usually hosted on the website (recently propelling it to 2 billion pageviews a month), Reddit will offer only a live video stream of the hearing and a simple message encouraging users to contact their Congressional representatives to tell them they are opposed to the bill.
However, as several Reddit commentators (Redditors) and tech writers outside of the website pointed out, much of Reddit is already opposed to the legislation, and not many members of Congress use Reddit, so it is unclear just how big of an impact the protest will have.
As such, several people have encouraged the blackout to be picked up by other websites, and on Thursday, Cheezburger, Inc. (the company behind LOL Cats, the FAIL blog and The Daily What, among others) announced it has joined suit. Wikipedia is also considering the idea.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a blackout of even more popular websites such as Google and Facebook — both of which are also strenuously opposed to the bill — not getting people’s attention.
But so far, those companies not actually committed to the January 18 blackout. A few weeks before the Reddit blackout was announced, Net Coalition — a trade organization that represents both Google and Facebook, along with a host of other companies, told CNET that there had been “serious discussions” about pursuing this option. We’ve reached out to Net Coalition to find out if those discussions have advanced or produced any plan-of-action and will update when we receive a response.