Anyone who was online last week (and tried to access Wikipedia) probably heard something about SOPA, the congressional bill that would have required stern actions to shut off access to foreign websites accused of hosting pirated video, audio and other media.
But critics — essentially the entire tech industry plus free speech advocates, decried it as a blunt instrument that would "break" the Internet by messing with the domain name system (DNS) system that ensures typing a URL into a browser delivers the right site. They also warned that it could be easily abused to shut down legitimate, and U.S.-based, sites by competitors or others who want to harm those sites.
"It could be potentially used to shut down stuff that people don't like — political opinions and stuff," said Web developer Andy Pearson, one of more than 1,000 people who joined a Wednesday protest in New York City against SOPA and the Senate version, alternately called PIPA and Protect I.P.
That action and many others, including the voluntary blackout of prominent sites such as Wikipedia and Reddit, as well as protest statements and petitions by the likes of Google, seem to have had an effect.
At least a half-dozen Senate sponsors have withdrawn their support of PIPA. But today marked two milestones. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada announced on his Twitter feed the delay of a vote set for next Tuesday to move the PIPA legislation to the Senate floor.
And Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, author of SOPA, and spiritual leader of the legislative push, said that he would postpone the bill while working to gain greater consensus. He hasn't tweeted about SOPA since a Jan. 13 announcement of a decision to withdraw the DNS-blocking provisions. (They remain in the Senate version.)
The White House had already expressed concerns about possible effects of the legislation. "Proposed laws must not tamper with the technical architecture of the Internet through manipulation of the Domain Name System (DNS), a foundation of Internet security," read a Jan. 14 statement. On the issue of abuse, it stated, "Any provision covering Internet intermediaries such as online advertising networks, payment processors or search engines must be transparent and designed to prevent overly broad private rights of action that could encourage unjustified litigation that could discourage startup businesses and innovative firms from growing."
"The congressional pullback on the SOPA/PIPA legislation marks a precedent-setting milestone for the New York Tech Community," said Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and chairman New York Tech Meetup.
So are SOPA and PIPA dead? That's unlikely, given the strong support they have from deep-pocketed content companies and their industry groups, such as the Motion Picture Association of America — one of the biggest pro-SOPA/PIPA advocates.
"Americans rightfully expect to be fairly compensated 4 their work. I'm optimistic that we can reach compromise on PROTECT IP in coming weeks," read another post on Reid's Twitter page.
And critics warn of the big money behind the laws. "Why is it when there are more important problems like the deficit, like unemployment, Congress cannot agree?" said Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of discussion site Reddit, to the assembled New York protesters on Wednesday. "But when Hollywood lobbyists show up with $94 million as they did last year, Democrats and Republicans sign up to co-sponsor a bill that everyone can agree on."
Warning members of Congress, Chris Dodd, a former Senator and now head of the MPAA said on Fox News yesterday, "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."