Where the Iowans in Congress stand on SOPA and PIPA

Wikipedia, Reddit and many other websites are dark today to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), now pending in the U.S. House and Senate. Momentum appears to have shifted against this legislation in its current form, but a modified bill might still pose a threat to freedom of information. I sought comment on this legislation from all members of Iowa’s Congressional delegation.

UPDATE: Added Representative Bruce Braley’s statement opposing SOPA below, along with a comment from Representative Steve King’s office.

LATER UPDATE: A statement from Representative Leonard Boswell is now below as well.

THURSDAY UPDATE: Added a YouTube video about SOPA, released by Braley’s re-election campaign.

First, some background on SOPA and PIPA, courtesy of Olivia Solon at Wired:

If passed, Sopa would allow the US Attorney General to get a court order against foreign websites that would then be served on internet service providers with the intention of making the site in question virtually disappear to users within the United States. These actions have to be taken within five days based solely on an accusation.

A site can be shut down for a single infringing link, even if you didn’t post it, for example if a commenter posts a copyrighted image inappropriately. Users can only defend themselves once their site has been taken down.

There is even a special provision for the ordinary web user that says they can be jailed for five years for posting copyrighted work.

Sites thought to be infringing copyright are blocked by domain name as opposed to IP address. This is particularly worrying because it tampers with the Domain Name System (DNS) which is a fundamental building block of the net. It translates domain names into code that allows any computer to find the site. Blocking sites at this domain level would make them disappear from the internet — a website death sentence, if you will. […]

Who supports Sopa?

Sopa is supported by organisations whose business model relies on copyright, including the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, Macmillan US, the Entertainment Software Association, Viacom and News International. Other supporters include trademark dependent companies such as Nike and L’Oreal.

Who opposes Sopa?

Most people with any clear understanding of how the internet works have spoken out against Sopa, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, eBay, Yahoo, Mozilla and LinkedIn. They have called Sopa “a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job creation, as well as to our nation’s cybersecurity”. Other opponents include Reddit, Boing-Boing, Mozilla, Wikipedia, international human rights groups, hundreds of business people and entrepreneurs and legal academics (.pdf).

Yesterday Siddhartha Mahanta and Nick Baumann argued in this Mother Jones story that “Big Hollywood lost” the battle over SOPA and PIPA, which “topped nearly every big entertainment company’s legislative priority list in 2011.”

A few tech journalists, such as Ars Technica’s Tim Lee, put in yeoman’s work covering the growing controversy. But the most important pressure came from some big names in new media: Craigslist’s Craig Newmark, BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow, Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, and so on. In late December, Reddit commenters organized a boycott of GoDaddy, a web-hosting company that backed SOPA. (The company changed its position.) Redditors, BoingBoingers, Craigslisters, and Wikipedians called their members of Congress, and several of the sites, including Wikipedia, began planning a coordinated blackout for Wednesday, January 18, to coincide with a hearing that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a SOPA opponent, was holding on the bill. […]

Minds changed. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), the chair of the powerful House budget committee announced on January 9 that he would oppose the bill (after taking nearly $300,000 from pro-SOPA donors). Ryan’s aspiring 2012 opponent, Rob Zerban, had raised tens of thousands of dollars through a Reddit campaign denouncing Ryan’s position on the legislation.

Late Thursday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the lead sponsor of the [Senate] bill, announced that he would consider dropping the DNS-blocking provisions from the bill. Late on Friday, [Representative Lamar] Smith, SOPA’s sponsor, did Leahy one better, removing the provision altogether. Not long after, six Republican senators-including two co-sponsors-released a letter they wrote to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), asking him to hold off on a January 24th vote to end debate on PIPA and move to passage.

By this weekend, the writing was on the wall. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House Majority Leader, announced that SOPA would not come for a vote in the House before the controversy over the bill is resolved-essentially killing it for the time being. The White House issued a statement opposing significant portions of the bills. And Issa cancelled the hearing planned for Wednesday, saying he’s “confident” the bill is dead in the House.

I wouldn’t be so sure the bill is dead. The controversy over SOPA and PIPA created strange bedfellows, and many powerful legislators in both parties are still listed as supporters of these bills. The response I got from the Iowans in Congress suggest that House and Senate members are reluctant to rule out this or similar action to combat internet piracy.

None of the five Iowans in the U.S. House has taken a public position on SOPA. Staff for Representatives Bruce Braley (D, IA-01), Leonard Boswell (D, IA-03), Tom Latham (R, IA-04), and Steve King (R, IA-05) have not yet responded to my request for comment on this issue. I will ask them all again today and update this post if I hear back.

Joe Hand, communications director for Representative Dave Loebsack (D, IA-02), sent me this comment yesterday:

“Dave believes open access to free flowing information over the internet is critical to competing in today’s diverse global economy, especially for internet-based small businesses and blogs. However, we must also ensure that intellectual property is protected from foreign websites dedicated to online piracy. We can and should achieve both of those goals.  The current legislation moving through Congress needs to be improved, including steps to ensure freedom of speech for domestic websites, before it moves forward.”

The whole “presumed guilty” concept behind SOPA strikes me as hopelessly flawed. I am concerned that a marginally changed bill would give members of Congress cover to support big content’s agenda here.

I expected Senator Tom Harkin to be a voice against PIPA by now. His concern for civil liberties inspired him to cast one of very few Senate votes against the defense authorization bill last month. However, communications director Kate Cyrul told me yesterday, “Senator Harkin’s office is still reviewing the Protect Intellectual Property Act.”

Senator Chuck Grassley’s position on PIPA has evolved recently. He is a co-sponsor of the bill and the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which approved the bill by voice vote. However, Grassley is also one of six GOP co-sponsors who asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last week to delay PIPA’s consideration on the Senate floor, scheduled for January 24. The Open Congress site posted the full text of the senators’ letter to Reid. Excerpt:

As you know, on May 26, 2011, the Senate Judiciary Committee favorably reported the bill by voice vote. Prior to committee action, some members expressed substantive concerns about the bill, and there was a commitment to resole them prior to floor consideration. That resolution has not yet occurred.

Since the mark-up, we have increasingly heard from a large number of constituents and other stakeholders with vocal concerns about possible unintended consequences of the proposed legislation, including breaches in cybersecurity, damaging the integrity of the Internet, costly and burdensome litigation, and dilution of First Amendment rights. Moreover, in light of potential cybersecurity implications, we believe hearing from the Administration and relevant agencies is imperative. As always, our current fiscal crisis demands we carefully consider legislation that would cost taxpayers up to $48 million according to the Congressional Budget Office. These are serious issues that must be considered in an informed, deliberative and responsible manner. […]

Yesterday, Grassley’s communications director Beth Pellett Levine responded to my request for comment as follows:

Senator Grassley strongly believes in property rights and the need to fight online infringement, but does not want to do harm to the internet, the Constitution, or the ability of businesses to grow and innovate.  He is troubled about provisions in the bill that could adversely impact cybersecurity and the First Amendment, and result in abusive litigation.  These are important issues that need to be addressed.  Senator Grassley is committed to trying to resolve these issues, and he doesn’t see a problem in slowing the process down to make sure that Congress works on a bill that protects intellectual property while maintaining the freedoms provided by the Constitution.

Speaking to Radio Iowa yesterday, Grassley said,

“They may not be perfect the way they’re written and I’m going to be part of the process to try to perfect them so that we can find a balance between people stealing copyright, trademarks and inventions and I guess you’d call it the freedom of the Internet.” […]

“If these search engines, like Google, are taking the position that nothing needs to be done, they’re taking the position that stealing is okay,” according to Grassley. The bills are SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and PIPA, which stands for Protect I-P or Internet Protocol [sic].

Grassley says the Senate version of the bills should be out of committee next week and will go to the floor for debate. He’s hoping common ground can be reached. Grassley says, “If everybody takes the position that stealing of copyrights, trademarks are wrong or that theft just generally is wrong and we start from the premise of what can we do to stop the stealing, then I think we can meet a friendly consensus on this issue and get the job done.”

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Here is Wikipedia’s blackout message:

Imagine a World

Without Free Knowledge

For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia. Learn more.

If you enter your zip code in the box on the Wikipedia blackout screen, wikipedia provides contact information for your members of Congress.

SECOND UPDATE: Braley released this statement on January 18:

“I strongly oppose SOPA, even though I remain concerned about the significant problem of online piracy.  Over 800 Iowans have already contacted me expressing their opposition to SOPA, telling me it threatens free speech online.  I agree.

“America’s great strength has always been innovation built on the open exchange of ideas.  Every new idea is built on the shoulders of those that preceded it.

“Limiting the free exchange of information online would stifle technological progress and put the United States at a competitive disadvantage with other nations.  That’s the wrong move for American innovation and advancement.”

King’s communications director Brittany Lesser sent me this comment:

Congressman King is following this legislation closely as the Judiciary Committee continues its markup process and is working with stakeholders and constituents on the issue. The Congressman is committed to combating online piracy and wants to ensure that the best possible solution comes out of the markup.

THIRD UPDATE: Public opposition from many conservatives makes me hopeful that SOPA and PIPA can be defeated. Today I found myself in rare agreement with former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker and his law partner, Republican State Representative Chris Hagenow. Both Whitaker and Hagenow criticized the bills today, and Hagenow released the text of letters he sent to Harkin, Grassley and Boswell. Excerpt:

Though I understand that piracy is a very real problem that hurts our country economically, I do not believe that SOPA/PIPA is the way to solve this problem.

My concern is based on the broad, unchecked power that this legislation would give to the Justice Department. The Protect IP Act would give the Justice Department the power to completely wall off websites and companies who unknowingly publish minimal amounts of pirated material. Under the proposed legislation, even a link made in comments to an article could be enough for the Justice Department to shut down a website.

Law-abiding U.S. internet companies would have to monitor everything users link to or upload or face the risk of time-consuming litigation. The censorship regulations written into these bills won’t shut down pirate sites. These sites will just change their addresses and continue their criminal activities, while law-abiding companies will suffer high penalties for breaches they can’t possibly control.

THIRD UPDATE: Representative Leonard Boswell’s office released this statement the afternoon of January 18:

“While I am supportive of protecting copyrighted content and preventing piracy, I will not back legislation that could unfairly hinder freedoms of speech and expression and possibly hurt our country’s online innovators, most of which are small businesses. At this time, I do not believe SOPA strikes the appropriate balance.”

THURSDAY UPDATE: Braley for Congress posted this video on YouTube.

As Braley talks about why he opposes SOPA, his words are repeatedly censored. At the end, the following words appear on a black screen:

Bruce Braley stands with you and opposes SOPA.

Call Congress: (202)-224-3121  www.brucebraley.com

Senator Grassley’s office released this statement the evening of January 18:

“It’s critical we protect the intellectual property rights of our businesses and fight online infringement, but at the same time, we can’t do harm to the internet, the Constitution, or the ability of businesses to grow and innovate.   Internet piracy is illegal, and we need to find a way that works for all sides.  The current Protect IP Act needs more due diligence, analysis, and substantial changes.  As it stands right now, I can’t support the bill moving forward next week.”

That doesn’t explain why Grassley co-sponsored the bill to begin with. At least he recognizes some of the problems now.

FINAL UPDATE: I tried to track down whether Iowa’s Congressional challengers support or oppose SOPA.

Christie Vilsack, Steve King’s Democratic challenger in IA-04, did not respond to my request for comment.

Ben Lange, who is running against Braley, posted on his Facebook page on January 18, “kudos to Congressman Bruce Braley for not supporting SOPA. …BUT in another unbelievable irresponsible act to every American under the age of 50, Bruce Braley AGAIN today voted to INCREASE our national debt!”

Rod Blum, the other Republican challenger in IA-01, did not respond to my request for comment.

John Archer and Dan Dolan, who are running against Dave Loebsack in IA-02, did not respond to my request for comment. Loebsack’s third challenger, Richard Gates, asked for a day or two to read the bill and review arguments for and against it. From a statement he e-mailed to me on January 20:

I have been listening to commentary, and reading opinions about this bill who’s goal is to counter Internet Piracy of intellectual property and protect copyrights. The goal is a worthy one. However, it comes at too high of a price by imposing far reaching regulations on almost every aspect of the Internet.

This single bill will impose new restrictions on Internet Service Providers, Domain Name Servers, Domain Registrars, and registrants. It will also impose government control over Internet advertisers, search engines and practically anyone with a web site.

With a simple court order, the DOJ will be able to not only shut down a specific Website but order ISP’s to block the site from it’s customers, and order the site’s removal from all search engines.

The implications of this bill are huge, anyone affected by this will become less effective out of an abundance of caution. Legitimate business could easily be shut down and the business destroyed without due process. I believe this bill to also be an infringement of our 1st amendment rights.

There is also the opportunity to see additional government rules just based on the tendency of government regulations tend to increase over time.

This year alone, over 40,000 new state and federal laws took affect.  Since 2008 over 80,000 new rules and regulations.

The United States already has copyright and Patent laws in place. An example of the enforcement of those laws would be Nabster. Others as well that had distributed music and/or videos online for free have either shut down, or changed their business model to bring them within existing laws.

Passing this bill will only add to the size and power of federal government, harm a real part of the economy that continued to grow even during the recession, and will impose restrictions on our 1st amendment rights.

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  • doubt it's dead

    it hit a technical glitch. Many pols who state opposition do so safely at present as the real issue at present is the conflict between domain blocking and DNSSEC, the “next wave” of domain name service.

    The blocking mechanism is primitive, it’s just a redirect; the same as what one does when changing IP addresses (changing hosts, for example).

    There’s a new protocol for DNS lookups that includes more or less a digital “fingerprint” to verify identity, so that the request can’t be intercepted. It’s called DNSSEC and Comcast is already rolling it out. It relies on trusted connections, so the issue here is that misidentified domains to block could create too many holes in the trusted connection network. Also: the US is already behind in establishing DNSSEC coverage — the country with the densest network today is the Czech Republic.

    However, people will still have to move domains in the future. I suppose the idea now is that the fingerprints will be portable and move with domain name, but I’m sure they’re probably working on a way to get around this as I type — perhaps a “fingerprint” redirect per block, who knows?  

    • probably you are right

      This bill is too important to powerful corporate interests to be well and truly dead. The next battle may be more difficult if cosmetic changes appear to address the free speech concerns.