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Over the past few weeks, an Internet forum — a platform frequently home to anonymous maliciousness and frivolous videos — has helped shape House legislation to address online piracy.
Internet users have visited KeepTheWebOpen.com, a website run by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), to comment on and suggest edits to a draft of Issa's Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act. The website operates on Madison, a technology developed for this type of crowdsourcing.
Starting Monday, KeepTheWebOpen.com will be updated to show changes to the draft legislation, the comments that prompted those changes and the rationale behind the edits.
The OPEN Act was originally created as an alternative to the House's Stop Online Piracy Act and its Senate companion, the PROTECT IP Act, which would have authorized the Department of Justice to remove online content that was alleged to infringe on U.S. copyright. Unlike SOPA and PIPA, OPEN would install authority in the International Trade Commission to investigate claims of copyright infringement.
Even after SOPA and PIPA stalled, OPEN continued to gain support from some members of the technology community and draw ire from groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America, which originally supported SOPA and PIPA.
According to the website, more than 150 users left comments and made suggestions on the draft bill. After combing through them, Issa and his staff came up with six changes to make to the draft.
While some of the changes address structural aspects of the legislation, others deal with the technology side of the issue, a facet of the process many protesters said was missing from the SOPA and PIPA debate.
For instance, the original draft included language about the "Website Owner" being charged with copyright infringement. At the prompting of a user who commented on the website, the language now includes "Owners or Registrant of a Domain Name," acknowledging that a website's owner might not necessarily be the person to whom the domain name is registered.
"We developed Madison to empower those shut out from the process that produced SOPA and PIPA," Issa said in an email. "It is an ongoing experiment in direct digital democracy, but the introduced version of the OPEN Act is proof that crowdsourcing can deliver better bills and a more accountable government."
While some critics, such as RIAA, have chosen to not participate, others are joining the conversation. Julie Samuels, a staff attorney at the digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, seized the chance to help shape the legislation, despite the belief held by both her and the EFF that the best solution would be no legislation.
"I prefer we find a new business model that solves the problem," she said. "But to the extent that there may be legislation, I'd rather it be legislation that grows out of an open, transparent and inclusive process."
Samuels explained that the reason she and the EFF were willing to get involved is because they view the bill as "a real alternative to SOPA and PIPA" and that the process behind its creation "represents so much of what SOPA and PIPA actually threatened."
Samuels hopes this kind of crowdsourcing will happen again. "The process at KeepTheWebOpen.com represents the best thing about technology, which is increasing democratic participation, increasing knowledge and getting folks involved," she said.
Correction: Feb. 6, 2012
An earlier version of the article incorrectly quoted Julie Samuels of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She said she hopes discussions about online piracy will be open, transparent and inclusive.