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Why SOPA and PROTECT-IP Are So Hard to Kill

November 23, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Last week an unprecedented coalition of tech companies, internet users, and public-interest groups came together to fight legislation that would give corporations and the government new powers to censor the internet. The numbers are impressive — in just one day more than one million emails were sent to Congress and 88,000 phone calls were placed to representatives. But despite this viral, grassroots effort, the special interests behind the bills are still winning. They have spent years working behind the scenes on Capitol Hill to assemble an extensive, bipartisan network of powerful lawmakers, and they are perfectly positioned to see the bills be approved and signed into law this session.

At a time when cooperation between Democrats and Republicans in Congress is exceedingly rare, the web censorship bills — SOPA and PROTECT-IP — stand out for being truly bipartisan. Here are a few points about the bills’ bipartisan nature on a sponsorship level:

  • Sponsorship support from both majorities — The bills bridge the divided 112th Congress by having a Republican chief sponsor in the Republican House and a Democratic chief sponsor in the Democratic Senate.
  • Sponsorship by Committee Chairs — The vast majority of bills die in the committee they were referred to (about 90% of them), and probably the single most important factor in determining whether bills advances in the legislative process is if the chairman of the committee they are referred to are supportive. In this case the chairmen of the judiciary committees the bills were referred to in both chambers are the bills’ chief sponsors.
  • Co-sponsorship by Ranking members — The top-ranking minority members in both judiciary committees are also both original co-sponsors of the bills.
  • Deep bipartisan support — According to an analysis by the RIAA, which supports the bill: “1882 bills have been introduced in the Senate in this session, and only 31 other bills besides PROTECT IP similarly enjoy the support of at least 35 co-sponsors.  Of those 31, only 18 other bills enjoy substantial bipartisan support — that means a mere 19 bills total (including PROTECT IP) out of nearly 1900 introduced in the Senate this Congress.”

So how have these bills have so successfully overcome the partisan divide in Congress? For starters, just follow the money:

And that’s for just 2010 and 2011. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, between 2000 and 2009 the largest lobbying group backing the bills, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, spent $572 million on lobbying Congress. On the other hand, the biggest lobbying group opposing the bills, Google, spent $11 million over the same period.

Beyond the money invested, the industries supporting the bills have been involved in the influence game long before the companies leading the push against them — Google, Twitter, Facebook — even existed. This has helped them develop cozy relationships with lawmakers and intertwine themselves with Congress via the revolving door. For example, the Motion Pictures Association of America last year hired one of the most powerful members of Congress in recent history — former Senator Chris Dodd [D, CT] — to serve as their Chairman and CEO. While Google does have one former member of Congress lobbying for them this year (Dick Gephardt), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has six.

Taking Advantage of the Jobs Crisis

SOPA and PROTECT-IP are similar to the two major legislative accomplishments of this Congress so far (patent reform and the free trade deals) in an important way — they protect big, established businesses at the expense of start-up innovators, all supposedly in the name of protecting jobs.

Just like the patent bill’s first-to-file system favors big companies with their own in-house patenting resources over independent inventors with limited resources, and the free trade deals help large multinationals gain access to more cheap labor, SOPA and PROTECT-IP would create a new system for big content companies to leverage their resources against small, under-resourced start-ups through legal proceedings and DNS blocking. Under the bills, a company like Comcast that provides television and ISP services would have a mechanism for attacking any site with user-submitted content. For example, if they felt threatened by internet users turning to a website to watch video (instead of turning on Comcast cable), they could take action to shut it down, and as long as they have “reasonable belief” that there was infringing going on they would have full legal immunity to do so. Mike Masnick at TechDirt has written a fantastic article describing the many ways in which these bills threaten jobs, the economy, and innovation. I highly recommend you give it a read.

The potential for stifling business innovation is obvious, but recent history shows that Congress is willing to push it as long as it a) is good for big business, and b) can be called a “jobs bill.” Not surprisingly, the bill’s supporters have been talking about SOPA and PROTECT-IP as jobs bills more and more frequently. Last week NBCUniversal’s general counsel Rick Cotton told Politico: “This is a jobs bill, and we’re happy to do our part to cut through the confusion, make the truth known and enable U.S. innovation, creativity and technical invention to continue to support U.S. job growth.” And in a Dear Colleague letter last week, SOPA sponsor ”http://www.opencongress.org/people/show/400381_Lamar_Smith">Rep. Lamar Smith [R, TX-21] said: “Rhetoric abounds regarding foreign threats to American jobs and wealth, especially during election season, but this legislation actually does something about it.” That these claims about job creation are impossible to back up hardly seems to matter to most members of Congress. What seems to matter is the fact that they are being made at all in relation to a bill that is supported by their corporate allies.

The PROTECT-IP Act is expected to be brought to the Senate floor by Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV], who, by the way, has already taken $665,420 this year from interests that support it. Sen. Ron Wyden [D, OR] has vowed to filibuster it, but he won’t be able to stop the bill from passing single-handedly. If you oppose these bills, take a minute right now to use our Contact-Congress tool to tell your senators to vote it down.

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