A screenshot of the current 'blacked out' Wikipedia page, after trying to read an entry
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were flooded with calls Wednesday morning in response to an online blackout by technology companies, including Wikipedia, Moveon.org, Reddit and thousands of other small sites protesting two related bills that would crack down on websites that use copyrighted materials and sell counterfeit goods. Some key lawmakers who've supported or co-sponsored the legislation are also backing off.
Many of the sites that went dark Wednesday explained the legislation and entreated users to call their representatives by listing their phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
"It's busy," says Patrick Chiarelli, a staffer for Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash. Staffers at other lawmakers' offices also say their call volumes spiked.
The legislation - the Stop Online Piracy Act (a House bill commonly called SOPA) and the Protect IP Act in the Senate (called PIPA) - allows U.S. attorneys general and copyright holders to crack down on websites that display or link to copyrighted intellectual property or counterfeit goods.
Opponents of the legislation say their momentum has been gaining for several days, but Wednesday's Internet blackout has spread their message to casual Web users who may not have previously paid attention.
"The momentum is totally real," says Marvin Ammori, a First Amendment lawyer who's fighting the legislation.
"It's nice to see a campaign like this when the average person knows something is up and calling his representative. People call about issues like immigration. But for Internet issues to get calls, it's a big deal."
The bills' supporters, including business trade groups, publishers and media companies, downplayed the effects of the blackout, calling it a political stunt.
"Some technology business interests are resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns, rather than coming to the table to find solutions to a problem," says Chris Dodd, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, which supports the bills. "A so-called blackout is yet another gimmick, albeit a dangerous one, designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently."
Dodd lost more supporters Wednesday.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a PIPA co-sponsor, withdrew his support for the bill. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, wrote on his Facebook page that Congress should slow down in pursuing the bills' passage and that it is "better to get this done right rather than fast and wrong."
"Stealing content is theft, plain and simple, but concerns about unintended damage to the Internet and innovation in the tech sector require a more thoughtful balance, which will take more time," he wrote.
In the House, Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz., who originally co-sponsored SOPA, withdrew his name from the list of sponsors on Tuesday, reported Politico. The Omaha World-Herald reported that Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., also withdrew his support from the current version of SOPA.
Sensing a rising tide of consumer backlash, SOPA opponents have been able to chip away at the bill. After much protest, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, announced late last week that he plans to scrap a key remedy for copyright holders and law enforcement - getting Internet service providers to block foreign websites accused of piracy. Obama administration officials also backed the change.
"Strangely, those who demanded that change are now shutting themselves down, although it is not clear why they are still protesting after they got what they wanted," says Steve Tepp, an attorney at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "In the spirit of compromise, the pending bills have been modified."
SOPA opponent aren't backing down because the legislation contains other provisions that are troublesome to Internet companies, Ammori says. Any website that engages in or enables copyright infringement could be placed on a list of websites that would be blocked by Internet service providers.
Copyright holders could also ask the court to force online advertising companies to stop doing business with the allegedly infringing website, have payment processors cease financial transactions with the site or get search engines to stop listing such sites.
"It's better, but so many problems still remain," Ammori says. "There are like 19 other things wrong with it."
Tepp disagrees, saying the bill offers "a narrow and targeted approach" in cracking down only on foreign websites that are aimed at U.S. consumers and whose operations exist mostly to infringe on copyrights or sell illegal goods.
SOPA opponents say the bills aren't entirely clear on whether domestic sites could also be subject to penalties