The Tide Could Be Turning on SOPA/PIPA

This morning I got a “breaking news” e-mail from Politico reporting that the White House had come out with a (somewhat wishy-washy) statement on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Here’s the text of the e-mail:

Obama administration officials said in a blog post today that they would “not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.” The White House did not take a definite position on SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act, but said “the DNS filtering provisions in some proposed legislation suggests that they pose a real risk to cybersecurity and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online.” The officials said, however, that legislation is needed to combat online piracy.

A number of sources are reporting this now as Obama “coming out against SOPA and PIPA. For example, at Slate, Matthew Yglesias writes:

SOPA/Protect IP fights are turning into an example of how the political system sometimes does work correctly after all. The con forces on these bills initially looked numerically overwhelmed in congress and hugely outspent. But opponents really mobilized vocally, got people and institutions who don’t normally focus on politics to write about this, and perhaps most important of all demonstrated that more people genuinely cared about this issue than most members of congress initially realized. Now the momentum has slowed incredibly and the White House technology policy team has come out against these bills.

Still, even Yglesias admits the WH statement is qualified.

To look a gift horse in the mouth for a second, however, I note that the White House statement does contain a “reasonable” to-be-sure line stating that “online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation’s most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs.”

Politico calls it “walking a thin line.”

In a blog post penned by three administration officials, the White House said it opposes any bill that would make it easier for government to censor the Web or make the Internet less secure, but it stopped short of saying whether that includes two bills that have sent the tech industry into a panic.

If that sounds like a careful effort to walk a thin line, it is: Some of the president’s biggest supporters in Hollywood and Silicon Valley and beyond are sharply divided over the bills, and the White House needs a way to keep both sides happy.

The Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and Protect IP Act in the Senate are an attempt by business interests led by Hollywood to crack down on people pirating movies and music and stop the sale of knockoff goods.

But Web companies and Internet freedom activists have cried foul, saying the bills would put restrictions on the Web in a way that could destroy the fundamental openness of the Internet and prevent the next generation of Facebooks or eBays from getting off the ground.

At Ars Technika, Timothy B. Lee reports that Congress is feeling the heat. They provide a number of examples of powerful legislators who are now having second thoughts–including Pat Leahy (one of the prime movers of the bills), Paul Ryan, Orrin Hatch, and Lamar Smith, who

announced that he would be pulling the DNS-blocking provisions from his own bill. “After consultation with industry groups across the country, I feel we should remove Domain Name System blocking from the Stop Online Piracy Act so that the Committee can further examine the issues surrounding this provision,” Smith said in a Friday statement.

DNS blocking would basically impose the kind of censorship used by China to block internet users from foreign websites that provide information the government doesn’t want people to be able to read. It would really kill what’s left of the First Amendment.

In addition, Lee notes in an update that Eric Cantor has said there will be no vote on SOPA until there is a “consensus.”

On the WH announcement, Lee writes:

The statement was made in response to a petition on the White House’s “we the people” site asking the president to veto SOPA if it reached his desk. The officials—IP enforcement coordinator Victoria Espinel, CTO Aneesh Chopra, and cybersecurity coordinator Howard Schmidt—did not commit the president to vetoing SOPA. However, they laid out criteria for an anti-piracy bill that seems to clearly rule out SOPA and the Senate’s Protect IP Act in their current form.

Also reported in the Ars Technika story,

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), a SOPA opponent, announced Saturday that he is postponing hearings on SOPA’s DNS provisions that had been slated for Wednesday, January 18 before his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“While I remain concerned about Senate action on the Protect IP Act, I am confident that flawed legislation will not be taken up by this House,” Issa said. “Majority Leader Cantor has assured me that we will continue to work to address outstanding concerns and work to build consensus prior to any anti-piracy legislation coming before the House for a vote.”

All this seems to bode well for the anti-SOPA/PIPA fight, along with the escalation in pushback by opponents that I posted in a comment yesterday that Anonymous has revealed the personal information of some powerful men in the media and Hollywood who are pushing for the bill.

Power to the People!