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SOPA and PIPA: What went wrong?

Everyone underestimated the impact of massive online protests in the debate over the two bills

By , IDG News Service
January 23, 2012 02:50 PM ET

IDG News Service - For Internet activists, last week's Web protests against two controversial copyright enforcement bills were a huge victory against three powerful and well-funded trade groups that pushed hard for passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act.

By the time the week was over, dozens of lawmakers had abandoned the two bills or voiced opposition, and a cloture vote on PIPA scheduled for this Tuesday in the Senate was delayed as lawmakers try to find a compromise. In the House, Representative Lamar Smith, the lead SOPA sponsor and Texas Republican, killed his bill.

For one of the first times, Web-based activism had a major impact on the U.S. congressional process. On Thursday, a day after the protests, former Senator Chris Dodd, now chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, groused to the New York Times that the protests had changed Washington, D.C., with Web companies able to influence debate without regulation or fact-checking.

Dodd, sounding a bit like a dictator deposed in a Twitter revolution, seemed to suggest that more citizen participation in the legislative process was a bad thing. That same day, the longtime politician told lawmakers what exactly he expected for the campaign donations MPAA members have given them over the years.

"This industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake," Dodd told Fox News. "Don't ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don't pay any attention to me when my job is at stake."

Dodd's comments led to a petition asking the White House to investigate Dodd for bribery. As of 1 p.m. EST Monday, the petition had more than 19,000 signatures, with about 6,000 more needed to get an official response from the White House.

In addition to poor sportsmanship from Dodd as the bills were dying, supporters of SOPA and PIPA made several tactical errors.

Just weeks ago, passage of PIPA or SOPA in Congress seemed all but assured, with strong support in both the Senate and the House of Representatives judiciary committees and a coordinated lobbying campaign by the MPAA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Recording Industry Association of America and several other groups.

Everyone underestimated the Web

But no one -- not supporters nor opponents -- anticipated the massive response by Internet users, and no one could predict the effect the blackout, led by Reddit.com, would have on lawmakers and the legislative process.

Everyone underestimated the Web, "which is sort of the beauty of it," said Maura Corbett, president of the Glen Echo Group and spokeswoman for NetCoalition, a tech trade group opposed to the bills.

"This was Outside the Beltway descending on Inside the Beltway, and we all just bore witness to it," she said. "People are fed up. Washington is broken, and now Washington wants to subject the Internet to it? The Internet said no."

The Chamber, MPAA and RIAA followed a tried and true method of getting legislation passed in Congress. They repeatedly raised the issue of so-called rogue websites with lawmakers and members of the press over the past two years, all the while pumping campaign donations into the war chests of key legislators. On the other side, a handful of digital liberty groups, Internet trade groups and other activists raised objections, but they were ignored by most lawmakers and mainstream media outlets.

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