SOPA saga shows best and worst of our political system

Public pressure works, but so does corporate lobbying and contributions

Three more co-sponsors of anti-piracy bills in the U.S. House and Senate have withdrawn their support in the face of fierce public outcry and the coordinated opposition of major Internet companies.

Reps. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) and Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) announced they were no longer co-sponsoring the Stop Online Piracy Act submitted to the U.S. House, while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) withdrew as co-sponsor of the Senate's companion bill, the Protect IP Act.

Their sudden reticence to support SOPA or PIPA coincidentally came on the day that thousands of Internet sites -- including Google, Wikipedia and reddit -- "went dark" for part or all of Wednesday in protest of the legislation which, if passed, could lead to censorship of the Internet by the U.S. Department of Justice either on its own or on behalf of copyright holders.

Visitors to Wikipedia, for example, were taken to a page explaining:

Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia.

Readers were then urged to lobby their representatives in Congress and provided contact information based on zip code.

Clearly this education/rabble-rousing strategy is working. Two more Republican co-sponsors of PIPA -- Orrin Hatch of Nevada and Charles Grassley of Iowa -- last week withdrew their support for legislation they previously had enthusiastically endorsed.

Why the change of heart? According to Rubio on his Facebook page:

Earlier this year, this bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously and without controversy. Since then, we've heard legitimate concerns about the impact the bill could have on access to the Internet and about a potentially unreasonable expansion of the federal government's power to impact the Internet.

Except that the SJC passed PIPA in late May, and the concerns about the legislation didn't just arise, they've been around for months. Rubio makes it sounds as if someone just handed him a stunning new memo.

There are two take-aways from the SOPA and PIPA saga regarding our political culture. The positive one is that strong public opposition to a bad proposed law actually can pressure representatives into changing their minds. That's comforting to know.

The negative take-away is that politicians will support drastic legislation without debate (remember, Rubio said the SJC passed PIPA "unanimously and without controversy") if they think no one is paying attention.

It was just fine back in May that PIPA allowed the federal government to sue sites allegedly infringing on intellectual property, a process Rubio now refers to as "a potentially unreasonable expansion of the federal government's power to impact the Internet."

Now that a growing number SOPA and PIPA co-sponsors have made clear the tremendous reservations they've always had about these bills they signed their names to yet also oppose, they can focus their efforts on not getting voted out office or alienating potential corporate campaign contributors serving the public's interests.

The same way they've always done.

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