Above: Clay Shirky explains why SOPA and PIPA are really bad ideas.
The upcoming opening of the Utah Legislature recalls the flurry of activity that attended the closing of the last session. It was a great day for democracy and for the traditional media, as The Salt Lake Tribune and other newspapers and broadcast outlets got out the news about House Bill 477, the ill-conceived stealth effort to gut the state’s exemplary open records law.
The exhaustive reporting and barrage of editorials put the matter squarely before the people of Utah, and brought us some professional recognition from around the nation. But it was the people of Utah — calling, emailing and literally taking to the streets — that convinced lawmakers to repeal the misbegotten bill before the month was out.
Last week, there was a similar flurry of democracy in action, with a similar outcome. But the mainstream media had precious little to do with it, other than stand back and watch in envious amazement.
This was an online uprising, independent not only of traditional media, but of the traditional tools of influence that involve campaign contributions and back-room lobbying.
A pair of matched bills before Congress had been sought by the motion picture and recording industries to give not only government prosecutors, but also private attorneys in the employ of copyright holders, broad powers to go after the online piracy and counterfeiting of movies, recordings, games, TV shows and other materials that, everyone agrees, are being stolen in vast quantities by mostly overseas-based websites.
The House version was called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The Senate version was the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). But Wednesday, if you went to the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia hoping to find that PIPA was a new web site full of photos of the Duchess of Cambridge’s little sister, you would have been disappointed. And, in millions of cases, alarmed.
That was the day that Wikipedia and many other popular websites went black or otherwise went ballistic in alerting their millions of users that the lobbyist-greased bills were on the verge of creating a legal framework that would cripple the free flow of information on the Internet. Sites such as Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter would be drafted into duty running down the illegal content. Innocent bystanders could face shut-down orders, fines, even prison, if somebody claimed they had been used as a conduit for any illegal file-sharing.
It would be, opponents convincingly explained, like closing your street to all traffic — even fining people who lived along that street — because someone none of us knows had driven down it in a stolen car.
Members of Congress were inundated with angry phone calls and emails. Some, like Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who was already against SOPA, got to spend the day saying I told you so. Others, like Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, executed a perfect pirouette and came out against the same PIPA he’d been a co-sponsor of the day before.
By the end of the day, the nose-counters at ProPublica.org, the leading investigative news service, saw the congressional count for SOPA/PIPA go from 80 to 31 in favor to 101 to 65 against. Even Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who just a couple of Sundays ago published an opinion column in favor of the bills, tweeted his surrender, faced down, he said, by his own teenage children.
Online piracy remains a problem. But now lawmakers wanting to deal with it will have to talk to people who — unlike the movie and music lobbies, and unlike Congress — have a clue how the Internet works. And they will have to be worried about what the millions of Internet users out there think about it.
What a brave new world this is.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, has no knowledge of any illegal content on his sites: facebook.com/stateofthedebate and twitter.com/debatestate.