Amid the glitz and glamour of Consumer Electronics Show, a grey cloud hangs over the annual geek-fest in Las Vegas: The future of controversial anti-piracy legislation known as SOPA, which threatens to cause a bit of a civil war among technology firms, pitting content firms against distribution companies.
A staunch opponent of the Stop Online Privacy Act, or SOPA, Rep. Darral Issa spoke at the show Wednesday, and announced plans to hold a hearing Congress on Wednesday, Jan. 18 that would give SOPA opponents a high-profile platform for their concerns. Meanwhile, Jan. 18 will apparently be the day part of the Internet goes dark for some. Reddit.com plans a black-out to call attention to SOPA that day, and others are following suit.
Meanwhile, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), sponsor of the Senate companion bill to SOPA, called The Protect IP Act, or PIPA, on Wednesday seemed to back off one of the legislation's most controversial elements -- the ability for law enforcement to shut down so-called "rogue websites" by making them inaccessible through the Web's domain name systems. Leahy said in a statement on his website that he would be willing to delay that portion of the legislation's enforcement provisions.
SOPA's supporters say the bill would give intellectual property rights holders -- such as TV studios -- a powerful new tool to protect their creative works. But opponents say it would allow federal authorities to shut down entire portions of the Internet without due process, and fundamentally alter the Internet's ability to provide a platform for free speech.
Strange bedfellows Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) jointly held a press conference Wednesday at CES, calling SOPA and its Senate companion The Protect IP Act (PIPA) a legal quagmire. Issa said SOPA was "massive legislation that would be expensive (and) hurt the Internet."
Issa's hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will be heavy on testimony from SOPA opponents. Lanham Napier, the CEO of Rackspace Hosting, and Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit.com, will reportedly appear.
That day, Reddit says it will essentially go dark from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., providing only a link to a video stream of the hearing. Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales posted a note on his personal page saying that website might consider a similar blackout. The hacker group Anonymous also encouraged others to join in the 12-hour blackout, garnered a lot of attention with its Twitter post using the hashtag #BlackoutSOPA.
The Consumer Electronics Association, which operates the CES trade show, is a vocal opponent of SOPA. A panel at the trade show was devoted to arguing the pros and cons of the legislation’s anti-piracy efforts.
The House Judiciary Committee was slated to revise and prepare SOPA for a vote -- a process called the "markup" -- in December, but the process was delayed one month. The date for a new markup session hasn't been released yet, but it is expected within the next three weeks. A vote on the Senate version of SOPA, PIPA, is slated for Jan. 24.
On Thursday, Leahy said complaints from "human rights groups, engineers, and others" had convinced him to change his thinking on the bill.
"I remain confident that the ISPs – including the cable industry, which is the largest association of ISPs – would not support the legislation if its enactment created the problems that opponents of this provision suggest. Nonetheless, this is in fact a highly technical issue, and I am prepared to recommend we give it more study before implementing it," he said in a statement on his website. "As I prepare a managers’ amendment to be considered during the floor debate, I will therefore propose that the positive and negative effects of this provision be studied before implemented, so that we can focus on the other important provisions in this bill, which are essential to protecting American intellectual property online, and the American jobs that are tied to intellectual property. I regret that law enforcement will not have this remedy available to it when websites operating overseas are stealing American property, threatening the safety and security of American consumers."
Meanwhile, At CES, Wyden and Issa stumped for their alternative to SOPA, which they call the OPEN Act, or Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act.
"I do not believe you can go out and damage the architecture of the Internet in the name of anti-piracy," Wyden said at his press conference, according to Twice.com
Issa, who ran a technology company before entering Congress, has complained that SOPA supporters in Congress don’t know enough about technology or the Internet to evaluate the legislation. The OPEN Act would take responsibility for enforcing anti-piracy rules away from the federal court system and give it to the U.S. International Trade Commission, a quasi-judicial body that advices Congress on international trade issues and has some enforcement power regarding unfair trade practices, such as product dumping or copyright infringement. The OPEN Act would also tone down some of SOPA’s provisions, such as the ability to quickly blacklist allegedly offending domains.
It's hard keeping track of who's for and against SOPA, and why the legislation is important in the first place. (Even the Daily Show's Jon Stewart admitted as much during Wednesday's show). Fortunately, there are some tools that can help. A website named SOPA OPERA allows visitors to search members of Congress geographically or alphabetically to see where they stand, based on public statements and other research.
The website TheoriesofConspiracy.com contains a list of what it says are about 350 companies that support SOPA. Most are media creation companies.
A more official list of supporters is published on the House Judiciary Committee's website (PDF).
The Center for Democracy and Technology is maintaining a list of firms that have "expressed concern" with SOPA, including heavy-hitters like Yahoo, Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
But the battle lines drawn over the SOPA fight can be messy. As msnbc.com’s Kyle Orland has written, some industries -- such as gaming -- are evenly split for and against the legislation.
For general background on SOPA, Declan McCullagh offers a comprehensive Q&A.