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While websites such as Wikipedia and Reddit were going dark earlier this month to protest online piracy legislation, KeepTheWebOpen.com was lighting up.
There, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is using crowdsourcing to gauge public opinion and gather suggested edits to the text of his online piracy bill that aims to avoid the fate of other recent piracy bills, which powerful Internet companies said would give the government too much power to remove online content.
Issa hopes his bill, the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act, or OPEN Act, will be seen as an alternative to the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate’s PROTECT IP Act, which drew ire from the Internet community earlier this month. As it is currently written, the OPEN Act would give the International Trade Commission authority to investigate claims of copyright infringement by foreign websites. Unlike SOPA and PIPA, which would have given the Department of Justice the ability to shut down websites that were charged with hosting copyrighted material, OPEN would allow the ITC to investigate claims of copyright infringement.
House and Senate supporters of SOPA and PIPA put the brakes on their measures under pressure from Internet companies.
Mindful that another strong push for online piracy legislation could generate the kind of backlash that SOPA and PIPA suffered, OPEN supporters seem to be discreetly building support and gathering outside perspectives from online communities, the content-producing industry and the general public.
“The OPEN Act creates uniform and targeted online infringement policies that will help protect intellectual property rights — without threatening internet safety and the thriving internet marketplace,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said in an email. Moran and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) are two co-sponsors of the OPEN Act, which was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in December.
Wyden, who serves on the Finance Committee, is hoping the bill can move forward there. “I am working with Chairman [Max] Baucus [D-Mont.] to enable the Senate Finance Committee to explore the trade implications of this issue,” he said in an email.
Wyden also said that, like Issa, he will maintain the level of public input into the legislation. “I will continue that level of transparency and inclusiveness as I work with leadership to reach the consensus needed to move forward,” he said.
As OPEN moves forward, its supporters can expect protest from the groups that both supported and opposed SOPA and PIPA.
The Motion Picture Association of America came out against the proposed legislation in a statement the group released earlier this month before the widespread online protests. “Unfortunately, the legislation sponsored by Senator Wyden and Representative Issa, the OPEN Act, is ineffective and essentially a distraction intended to hurt the prospects of more effective legislation, the Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT IP Act,” Michael O’Leary, senior executive vice president for global policy and external affairs, said in the statement.
The statement from O’Leary goes on to say that OPEN would create bureaucratic obstacles for copyright holders and be too lenient with websites that illegally use copyrighted materials.
The Recording Industry Association of America, another supporter of SOPA and PIPA, expressed similar dissatisfaction with the bill. “The bill as drafted would do more harm than good,” an RIAA spokeswoman said, “but of course we’d consider all options on the table to see if a real, effective and meaningful consensus solution can be found.”
On the other side of the issue, the SOPA and PIPA protesters are divided on OPEN.
A collection of major technology companies, including Google, Twitter, eBay and AOL, sent Wyden a letter pledging their support for OPEN at the beginning of the month. “This approach targets foreign rogue sites without afflicting collateral damage on legitimate, law-abiding U.S. Internet companies by bringing well-established international trade remedies to bear on this problem,” the companies said in the letter. “We commend your effort and look forward to supporting the legislation upon its formal introduction.”
Holmes Wilson, co-founder of Fight for the Future — the group that helped organize the online protests of SOPA and PIPA earlier this month — explained that many of the protest’s participants believe the first step should be evaluating if legislation is actually needed. “The consensus among groups that we’ve talked to ... is that the film industry, the primary proponent of SOPA, needs to define a lot better what the problem is and substantiate it with data,” he said.
According to Wilson, the recording and film industries have not convinced the online community that online piracy on foreign websites is a danger that cannot be addressed by existing laws. Wilson pointed to the recent shutdown of New Zealand-based Megaupload.com, a website that was allegedly sharing copyrighted material illegally, as an example of how existing law adequately addresses issues of copyright infringement by foreign websites.
Wilson said the focus should be why people reacted so strongly to SOPA and PIPA. “We want to have a real public dialogue,” he said, explaining that members of the Internet community are developing “a set of common principles for a free Internet” that they could point to when policymakers attempt to tackle online piracy again.
And, for Wilson, that’s a certainty. “This is not going to be an issue that goes away,” he said. “We’re in this for the long haul.”