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For those of you who haven’t really been keeping up with the news on the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) in January, you missed out on quite a ride. If you’re not sure what SOPA is, please scan through December’s article, “What is SOPA?” to understand the basic SOPA issues and cast of characters.
House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Hearings on SOPA
Members of the Judiciary Committee seemed to be unaware in mid-November of the opposition to SOPA by Internet groups. The committee was assured by those who helped introduce and supported the bill, led mainly by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) that the Internet people had been consulted, and had no problem with this bill. SOPA was expected to sail through the Judiciary with almost no opposition.
Of six industry representatives invited to speak at this hearing, Google was the only Internet/technology representative, and the only one in opposition to SOPA, which gave the appearance to many of a “stacked deck” in favor of SOPA. Google tried to make their case against the bill, but was met with a rather hostile reaction from many members of the committee.
It was at this Committee Meeting on November 16 that Google and other Internet-related organizations realized that they were about to get railroaded by the House Judiciary and the Hollywood collective, led by the MPAA and the RIAA.
When the House Judiciary Committee met again in mid-December, Internet groups had been active for a month in raising awareness of the SOPA issue and contacting key people in Congress about their concerns. In a strategic effort to delay passage of the bill, a small minority of anti-SOPA committee members proposed 25 amendments to the bill, which were systematically voted down. However, this action succeeded in preventing the bill from being passed out of committee until January. The delay proved to be critical in allowing the Internet groups against SOPA to get the word out and get organized.
The press release issued by the Judiciary Committee after the meeting gave no evidence of any credible opposition to the bill.
Raising Awareness – Stop SOPA
Although there had been some demonstrations across the Internet to raise awareness of the SOPA bill, like American Censorship Day, and Twitter users inserting “Stop SOPA” banners across their images, some Internet groups felt that they were running out of time, something “big” was needed. On January 10 Reddit announced that it would be “blacking out” its website for the entire day on January 18th.
Cheezburger Inc. and other websites announced they would join Reddit. On January 13, Wikipedia, one of the “big boys” of the Internet indicated it was seriously considering joining the “blackout” on the 18th. This announcement itself brought a lot of attention and credibility to the anti-SOPA movement. The tide was starting to turn against SOPA.
On January 13, under mounting public pressure, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith announced that SOPA would no longer include the provision to block websites across the Internet. This was seen as a clear victory for the anti-SOPA groups.
On the 14th, The Obama administration stated in a White House blog post that "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."
The clear interpretation being that Obama has come out against the SOPA bill, using the same language as the anti-SOPA groups.
The action of the White House brought public criticism of President Obama by Rupert Murdoch, Chairman of News Corp, a SOPA supporter.
The day before the scheduled anti-SOPA blackout, MPAA chairman and CEO Chris Dodd in a public statement characterized the actions of the websites participating in the protest as “stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns.”
The Protest Begins
Wikipedia went dark at around midnight on the 18th along with sites like Craigslist, Wordpress.org, and the Huffington Post. Reddit, Mozilla, Cheezburger, Tucows went black later in the morning. Thousands of other websites participated in the blackout in some way. Many of the sites provided links, petitions or other methods to contact Congress to express their anti-SOPA sentiment.
In Hawaii, because of the time zone difference, the websites started to go dark Tuesday night. It was amazing to jump from site to site and see that they had actually blacked out, and to realize that this was something that has never happened before; a remarkable event.
As the buzz over dark websites went across the Internet throughout the day, congressional offices were inundated with calls and emails expressing their anti-SOPA views. The next day, a count of the members of Congress showed that 63 supported SOPA, 122 were against, where a few days before, there were 80 members in favor, and 31 opposed. This was an astounding shift in sentiment.
An angry MPAA chairman Chris Dodd threatened to withhold campaign contributions from Obama and the Democrats for abandoning their SOPA support.
Candidly, those who count on quote 'Hollywood' for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake ... 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." ... I would caution people don't make the assumption that because the quote 'Hollywood community' has been historically supportive of Democrats, which they have, don't make the false assumptions this year that because we did it in years past, we will do it this year ... These issues before us -- this is the only issue that goes right to the heart of this industry..
Dodd has subsequently taken heat for this statement as an admission of bribery.
Chris Dodd is a former Democratic U.S. Senator from Connecticut. At one point, he was under consideration for Senate Minority Leader. He choose not to run for his Senate seat in 2010 and became the head of the MPAA in March of 2011. Dodd's position at MPAA demonstrates Hollywood's belief of the importance of being well-connected within Washington.
Then, something quite unexpected happened
The day after the anti-SOPA blackout, the FBI announced it had shut down MegaUpload, the Internet ‘s biggest file locker service, known for distributing pirated material on a very large scale. Megaupload customers were able to upload large files to their “cyberlockers” (secure file storage) and then allow others or themselves to download these files.
The founder and the principal owner of MegaUpload is Kim DotCom, also known as Kim Schmits. Mr. DotCom is a gregarious, larger-than-life character living in a multi-million dollar mansion with a collection of exotic automobiles. He is a German national living in New Zealand. Kim DotCom and five other MegaUpload associates were arrested by the FBI in New Zealand.
Megaupload is incorporated in Hong Kong and had its company’s servers located in different places around the world. The DOJ stated that MegaUpload had some servers located in Virginia, and this gave them the jurisdiction to move against this company.
Megaupload ran their services in such a way that attempted to skirt the legal definitions of knowingly distributing pirated material. Contents of the file lockers were under the control of the customers, not the website. MegaUpload did not necessarily know what kind of content was in each of the file lockers. There was no capability built in to MegaUpload to run a site wide search for a particular file, but you were able to search via a third-party search engine. Additionally, many of MegaUpload’s customers used the service as a legitimate file storage locker. For now, these customers have lost their stored files and may never get them back. It remains to be seen if DOJ actually has a solid case against MegaUpload.
Robert Bennett was initially named as one of MegaUpload’s defense lawyers. Bennett is one of the best-known defense lawyers in the U.S., representing Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, and well-connected within the Democratic Party. One day after the announcement, Bennett withdrew from the MegaUpload case citing a conflict of interest with another client of his law firm, although Bennett had advised MegaUpload in previous cases. Pressure may have been exerted externally on Bennett's law firm to get him off the case.
Some have speculated that this action by the Justice Department was a direct reaction to the success of the anti-SOPA movement, and was meant to send some sort of message. Some say that the DOJ action was Obama’s way of placating Dodd and the MPAA as the President heads into re-election mode. The coincidence of having the largest FBI raid ever of a pirate website, (and in a foreign country no less) one day after the anti-SOPA demonstrations seemed inconceivable.
However, local news reports in New Zealand say that the raid was timed to happen for Kim’s birthday celebration so all the MegaUpload associates could be rounded up at the same time. The raid on MegaUpload seems to have occurred the day before his celebration party.
Other observers point out that the MegaUpload bust was poorly timed if you were a SOPA supporter because it proved that the DOJ already has the legal tools it needs to go after the big offenders.
"We are Anonymous. We are Legion"
Within an hour of the Department of Justice announcement of the MegaUpload bust (some say thirty minutes), the DOJ website goes down. Then the RIAA website goes down. Same for Universal Music Group. MPAA disappears. US Copyright Office, EMI, bmi.com, Warner Music Group, FBI.gov, ChrisDodd.com, Vivendi.fr, Whitehouse.gov, all drop off the Internet.
These websites were all victims of a massive distributive denial of service attack (DDoS). From Twitter, hacktivist group Anonymous directs readers to their public statement:
(For some background information on Anonymous, go to my article on this website, Who Is “Anonymous?”)
Cyberlocker Sites Start to Panic
Within 48 hours of the MegaUpload bust, other cyberlocker sites change their policies and curtail services. Filesonic bans third party downloads so that only the user who uploaded the files may download. They also eliminate their affiliate program, where the owners get paid for downloads from their locker. Fileserve has also banned third party downloads and ended their affiliate program. Uploaded.to has banned all US IP addresses. A number of other file sharing sites are reported to have deleted accounts and/or deleted files from their sites. UploadBox and x7.to have completely shut down.
This is NOT over
On January 20, Representative Lamar Smith, withdrew the Stop Online Privacy Act from consideration in the House of Representatives. With this action, SOPA has died.
The Senate’s version of SOPA, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) has not been withdrawn, but a vote scheduled for it on January 24 was postponed, and for now, it seems to be in cold storage.
Patrick Leahey, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, was not pleased. He stated that, "the day will come when the Senators who forced this move will look back and realize they made a knee-jerk reaction to a monumental problem."
Leahey is not giving up on his bill, and the anti-SOPA crowd needs to understand that this is not over.
For this first encounter, Hollywood, led by the MPAA and Chris Dodd, underestimated the Internet and lost... badly. But Hollywood will not let this happen again.
The following is a commercial I have seen on television recently from an organization called "Creative America" which is backed by NBC Universal, Viacom, Sony Pictures, Warner Bros, and other entertainment/media companies. This is how Hollywood will try to make their case.
Understand that no one is trying to be an advocate for online piracy. I do expect that eventually there WILL be a law on the books that Google and the other Internet companies can support. It's just that the SOPA bill, as it was originally written, was flawed in the way it would block access to websites, flawed by not giving due process to the alleged violators of the law, and flawed because of the over-broad definitions of actions that may be taken against copyright violators, leading to fears of censorship. This, combined with the reputation MPAA and RIAA for being heavy-handed with its use of the DMCA and other existing piracy/copyright laws, caused the Internet groups to be fearful about giving Hollywood any additional legal hammers to bring down on alleged violators.