Over the weekend Congress did to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) what SOPA would have allowed copyright owners to do to those they accused of content piracy: killed it without giving its backers a public opportunity to defend themselves.
The office of House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) issued a press release Saturday announcing that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had promised there would be no vote on SOPA in the House unless backers were able to reverse what had become a tidal wave of opposition from every point on the political spectrum as well as both sides of the divide between copyright holders and their customers.
The White House got credit for slowing SOPA's progress enough for Congress to put it out of its misery.
Guilty (of piracy) until proven innocent
It was the provision in the bill that would have allowed the Dept. of Justice and copyright holders to make sites accused of content piracy disappear from the Internet without the chance to defend themselves or even require judicial oversight that lit fires under SOPA opponents.
Even a last-ditch effort by the bill's lead sponsor to save SOPA by limiting or deleting the extra-judicial powers it would have granted didn't slow those opposing SOPA, whose determination was reinforced by weeks of self-justification,patronization and dismissal of their concerns by SOPA's sponsors and its defenders.
Social-networking/news aggregation site Reddit.com became a focal point for the opposition, publicizing details and implications of the Act.
Chief among its offenses was the provision that would allow federal regulators to order ISPs to delete links to "offending" sites from their DNS databases. The bill allowed regulators to assume foreign sites were guilty of piracy based only on the complaints of companies with a financial interest in the result without allowing either ISPs or site owners the opportunity to defend themselves.
Equally frustrating even for those believing some limits on content piracy may be appropriate was the
absolute refusal of SOPA sponsor Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and other supporters to even discuss compromise on uncontrolled punitive measures, despite the obsessive witch-hunting record of the RIAA, a key industry backer, and technical conflicts that would make it impossible for another supporter, Comcast, to implement enforcement measures required by SOPA.
The opposition of Internet-based companies was so intense, Facebook, Amazon, Google and Twitter considered "going black" for a day to protest the bill; Reddit vowed it would do so Jan. 18, encouraging other major sites to do likewise.
SOPA is dead; (just as) evil twin PIPA still lives
The effort to create a dictatorship for copyright holders isn't quite dead, however,
SOPA was just one of two major bills with nearly identical provisions.
The Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), currently still alive in the Senate, will continue its trip through the legislature, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, despite Reid's own concern that it might "break the Internet," the same tidal wave of opposition that swamped SOPA and the urging of even PIPA's other sponsors that PIPA be shelved for the same flaws that killed SOPA.
Big victory may be the only one for individual rights this year
The death of SOPA is a big victory for those who respect the rights of the individual and for Fair Use and other long-established rules that allow for the distribution of knowledge even against efforts of parasitic publishing companies to extract fees in blood for even the most peripheral use of content.
Opposition to SOPA demonstrates the respect Americans hold for the principles supporting privacy and independence in the Constitution and the tremendous power of free people roused by threats to their ability to speak.
It is not a big enough victory to represent a turnaround in the continuing erosion of personal rights from a coterie of interested partis the ACLU has nicknamed the "Surveillance Industrial Complex."
Law enforcement agencies routinely demand secret access to cell phone GPS and call records, passenger profiles maintained by airlines, sing traffic cameras to record, analyze and track the locations of individual car license plates, profiling
Defeating SOPA is just one narrow victory in an ongoing fight over whether individuals have any right to control information most would consider private against the legal and de facto efforts of law enforcement, regulatory and commercial organizations to take what they want from our calling records, Internet search and browsing habits, library use and even the personal photos and other information we post online ourselves on sites like Facebook with the mistaken assumption we can take it back again whenever we'd like.
Defeating SOPA is a big deal, no doubt. It's far from the only fight to protect the rights of individuals on the Internet, however. In many ways, it's not even the most serious.
More comprehensive efforts to protect privacy and free speech, launched by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU and others to reinforce techniques and laws designed to protect the individual are far less visible and less effective than the sudden, massive rejection of SOPA, though the cost of losing those fights is far more long-reaching and more serious.
On the intellectual-property/civil rights front, the SOPA fight is a big victory that puts the score so far for 2012 at: U.S. Constitution: 1, Vigilante Censorship: 0.
Unfortunately, the score is not likely to stay that positive for very long.
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.