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Are PIPA and SOPA Dead? White House Issues Strong Declaration Against Its Key Provisions

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Saturday, January 14 2012

Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Internet activists? Illustration: Kainet / Flickr

The Obama administration on Saturday took the unprecedented step of engaging the internet community online about the problems that a pair of controversial online intellectual property protection bills would cause online businesses and start-ups.

The White House' top policy advisors on technology, intellectual property and cybersecurity responded on Saturday to two petitions submitted via "We The People" petitioning tool. They said that key provisions of the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House (SOPA,) and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) still contained key flaws that could put free expression at risk and impede business innovation.

The administration's statement is its clearest statement to date on its position on the controversial legislation and marks an unusual line in the sand for a party that has historically and for the most part unquestionably sided with entertainment industry proposals to curb digital piracy. The statement also represents an unusual official acknowledgement of the extent of the internet and start-up community's concerns about the legislation.

"We want to take this opportunity to tell you what the Administration will support -- and what we will not support," wrote the three authors of the Saturday White House blog post. "Any effective legislation should reflect a wide range of stakeholders, including everyone from content creators to the engineers that build and maintain the infrastructure of the internet."

The signed authors of the blog post are Aneesh Chopra, the chief technology officer of the United States, and assistant to the president and the associate director of technology at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Victoria Espinel, the White House' intellectual property co-ordinator who manages the administration's official IP policy, and Howard Schmidt, the President's special assisant and cybersecurity co-ordinator for his national security staff.

"Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small," wrote the authors. "To minimize this risk, new legislation must be narrowly targeted only at sites beyond the reach of current U.S. law, cover activity clearly prohibited under existing U.S. laws, and be effectively tailored with strong due process and focused on criminal activity."

They added that any other measures obligating internet intermediaries to strangle accused web sites must make those steps to do so transparent so that potential litigation doesn't suffocate start-ups.

The White House also acknowledged internet security engineers' concerns by pointing out the two bills' domain name provisions. Both bits of legislation had up until this week contained a provision that would have required internet service providers to block access to domain names of web sites deemed to be dedicated to digital piracy and counterfeiting by the Justice Department. The chief sponsors of both House and Senate bills said that they intended to drop the provisions.

The legislation also contains provisions that would have given private parties more power to sue web site operators that they accuse of being dedicated piracy and counterfeiting. Critics had said that those provisions were too broad.

"The White House also was correct to oppose the parts of the bill that would give private parties far too much authority to pursue their own litigation that could harm startup companies and stifle innovation," said Sherwin Siy, deputy legal director at Public Knowledge, a digital rights group which has been one of the big organizing forces against the legislation in its current form. "The statement also highlights the need for any legislation to be narrowly tailored to criminal violations of existing law and with appropriate due process to ensure that online speech is not stifled."

The NetCoalition, which includes Amazon, eBay, Google, Yahoo!, Bloomberg, the IAC and Wikipedia, also responded with a sigh of relief, and acknowledged another development late in the week.

"We are also pleased that Majority Leader Cantor has assured House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) will not go to the House floor without consensus, which is clearly not the case at this time," said NetCoalition's Executive Director Markham Erickson.

Issa said in a statement that he would postpone Wednesday's hearing on the cybersecurity and job creation implications of domain name blocking in light of Cantor's assurances.

"Earlier tonight, Chairman Smith announced that he will remove the DNS blocking provision from his legislation," he said. "Although SOPA, despite the removal of this provision, is still a fundamentally flawed bill, I have decided that postponing the scheduled hearing on DNS blocking with technical experts is the best course of action at this time. Right now, the focus of protecting the Internet needs to be on the Senate where Majority Leader Reid has announced his intention to try to move similar legislation in less than two weeks."

The White House' Saturday statement comes amidst intense opposition to the legislation not only among the growing army of people whose livelihoods depend on innovation on the internet, but by deep pocketed investors and businesses in Silicon Valley.

Many venture capitalists and tech companies, (and former vice president Al Gore) see the legislation in its current form as fatally flawed because more and more companies are becoming operators of social platforms on which the public increasingly participate and contribute content.

The latest example of how one company feels threatened by the legislation is Craigslist, which has places a note to its users on its front page about the two bills:

HR3261 & S968 are
threatening CL and
the rest of your
Internet. Most of
the web sites you use
strongly oppose these
bills. Find out why, and
how you can help put
a stop to this madness
before it's too late!

Even Ron Conway, a well known angel investor in San Francisco, has a "Stop SOPA" banner on his Twitter picture (Conway is an investor in Twitter.)

Meanwhile on Saturday, Hollywood's lobbying arm, the Motion Picture Association of America, politely applauded the administration for stepping in, but told Congress to quit stalling:

"We are pleased that Chairman [Patrick] Leahy and Chairman [Lamar] Smith reiterated yesterday that they too support action. So now it is time to stop the obstruction and move forward on legislation," said Michael O’Leary, the MPAA's senior executive vice president for global policy and external affairs.

He added: "While we agree with the White House that protection against online piracy is vital, that protection must be meaningful to protect the people who have been and will continue to be victimized if legislation is not enacted."

In its Saturday note, the White House sought to bring the internet community together to come up with solutions, rather than merely oppose the legislation.

The three White House officials said Saturday that they are inviting the organizers of the online petition to participate in a conference call to "discuss the issue further with Administration officials, and soon after that we will host an online event to get more input and answer your questions."

"Don't limit your opinion to what's the wrong thing to do, ask yourself what's right," they wrote.